By Adeline Kim
My favorite poem is Supermarket in California by Allen Ginsberg. In the poem, Ginsberg, a icon in the beat poetry scene of the 1950s, speaks of his wandering through the supermarket at night, following the aged Walt Whitman. I think I was always drawn to this poem in particular and other supermarket themed works such as “lost in the supermarket” by the Clash because I’ve always identified with the fundamental notion that they convey: as consumers we are lost. Especially as an adolescent, I’ve always felt like I was being manipulated by packaging and advertisement that was meticulously constructed to appeal to my greatest insecurities and deepest desires. I became even more disillusioned by my role as a consumer when I learned that I don’t actually know what it is that I am buying.
I learned about labor trafficking-both foreign and domestic- when I was thirteen. I took the slavery footprint test online, punching in the amount of clothing down to the amount of toothpaste I used, and I was horrified to be told that I had 29 slaves, or people who were forced to do the labor that went into the products I used on a daily basis. Me? A demander of slavery? Even I, whose family shopped at the local food coop, and who only consumed organic locally grown foods, was not exempt from being part of the demand for cheap products in a globalized market that resulted in the bondage of 21 million people worldwid?e. I began to do research into how I could modify my lifestyle, and how I educate others, especially people my age, about this issue.
I, along with a group of students, organized a human trafficking conference at Poly that took place on February 7th, 2016. At the conference we had eleven workshops, all focusing on different topics that fell under the macro topic, human trafficking. At the conference we had two workshops focusing on conscious consumerism as a force to end labor trafficking. The first was facilitated by Emily Lapchick, who is the program officer for UNICEF’s End Trafficking Project, and in her workshops students took the slavery footprint test that had first exposed me to the idea of conscious consumerism. The second was facilitated by Patricia Cipollitti from the Alliance for Fair Food (AFF).
I was first introduced to the Alliance for Fair Food by a mentor of mine, Mr. Sivin. The Alliance for Fair Food is a network of people working to support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a completely farmer worker run organization that has established themselves as the most powerful force for labor rights in the world. Immokalee, Florida is where most of the tomatoes we buy and consume are grown. The farmworkers who pick the tomatoes in Immokalee are mostly non english speaking, migrants, many of whom are undocumented. Prior to the coalition's existence, the farmworkers had no voice and no power, and as a result, they were being exploited incredibly; they faced wage theft, verbal abuse, and sexual harassment, and in the worst cases, human trafficking. The CIW developed the Fair Food Program, which ensures that corporations pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes, thus, providing the farmworkers with the needed protections and living wages. For consumers, buying from businesses that are on board with the Fair Food Program means knowing that the tomatoes they are eating do not have the stain of human exploitation on them. In 2005, the CIW won their first major victory by getting Taco Bell to sign on to the Fair Food Program and since then they have gotten other large corporations such as McDonalds, Subway, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, and even Walmart to do the same. Nevertheless, the CIW was not able to achieve these wins alone and all of these victories wouldn’t have been possible without the help of consumers. The Alliance for Fair Food and the Student Farmworker Alliance (SFA) helped to bolster the calls of the farm-workers by organizing boycotts, staging protests, and educating the general public about the situation at hand.
The CIW has many accomplishments, but there is still much more to be done, and the work they do is not easy; in fact, it is sometimes dangerous. Wendy’s is the last Fast Food chain under the Yum Brands to have held out from joining the Fair Food Program, and have even, as a response to the backlash from the CIW, moved their tomato suppliers to Mexico, where labor laws are almost non-existent, allowing them to buy cheaper tomatoes with complete disregard for human suffering. The CIW, with support from the AFF and the SFA, launched the Workers Voice Tour, a tour across America to bring Wendy’s to the table once and for all. On March 3rd, they launched their tour in New York, staging a march in midtown Manhattan, and announcing their national boycott of Wendy’s. A group of four Poly students were among the protesters. We watched an incredible popular theatre performance by the farmworkers-done in both english and spanish-that depicted the history of the CIW’s battle with Wendy’s. The performance depicted the wedding of Wendy, herself, and “Mr. Exploitation.” It was clear that the culture of the farmworkers, and of the CIW as a whole, was incredibly vibrant and unwavering despite the struggles they endured. During the speeches protesters were asked “are you cold” and we responded, shouting back “QUE ES ESTO!” (what is that). We then marched to Nelson Peltz, chairman of Wendy’s, office and picketed outside. The whole experience was amazing and it was incredibly moving to see the amount of people, and even more, the types of people, who came out to support this incredible movement for labor justice. People of faith, young people, queer people, and the farmers themselves, all marching along-side each other to demand an end to exploitation of farmworkers.
As students we are often made to feel as if we have no power; we don’t have the legitimacy that comes with age and expertise to participate in social movements, and nor do we have the time, when, we should be focusing on academics and extracurriculars that will help us get into college. What I learned from witnessing the energy of this movement, on a frigid school night, was that I, and students in general, wield the potential power to create incredible change. Corporations are actually hungry for our attention and dedicate most of their resources and energy to appeal to us. If we flip the script, and demand that in order for us to trust what they are selling to us, they must meet our demands, we will end up improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who we will never meet.