Whenever I visit my best friend in Florida, we invariably end up making a stop at one of the most glorious supermarkets in the region: Publix. With its spacious, shining aisles filled with just about every food imaginable, Publix is the American Dream packed into a store.
Unfortunately, there is only one thing that stops Publix from becoming my top choice for groceries: Publixs treatment of its workers.
Unlike other well-known companies like McDonalds, Taco Bell, Subway, Burger King and Whole Foods, Publix refuses to sign on to the Fair Food Program, an initiative that has earned widespread praise from inside and outside the food industry. The FFP binds tomato farmers to basic codes of conduct ensuring that farmworkers are not exploited or, in the worst cases, abused.
Before the FFP, workers were not provided with regular water stations or permitted to temporarily leave the fields while cancerous pesticides were showered on the crops. On the most callous farms, injured workers were left to wait until the end of the day for a possible ride to the hospital. From chemical exposure, women often miscarried or gave birth to babies with severe deformities. Some women were even raped in the fields. In one shocking case of worker abuse, U.S. District Attorney Doug Molloy was so appalled he labeled it slavery, plain and simple.
But now, with the FFP in place, workers rights are protected with regulated processes for addressing violations. Laborers, for the first time, are beginning to see farmwork as a reasonable, albeit incredibly arduous, occupation as opposed to a day-to-day game of Russian roulette.
By evading the FFP, Publix turns its back on the 90 percent of tomato farms that treat their workers with dignity and instead chooses to buy from the handful of farms where abuses routinely occur.
As the most profitable supermarket in the United States, Publix claims that it cannot afford to get involved in a labor dispute between farmers and their employees. That statement is a shameful avoidance of a crucial human rights issue. The FFP is a partnership between farmers and laborers that protects lives and lets farmers sleep at night with clear consciences. Somehow other major corporations have been convinced of the FFPs importance while Publix plugs its ears. The cost of this program to a multibillion-dollar corporation would be pennies.
Some months ago, I traveled to South Florida to see the tomato fields and meet the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. This prophetic group, through diplomatic efforts and peaceful protests, has asked for, at the very least, a meeting to discuss the FFP. Publix has consistently dismissed the offer.
Reports say Publix intends to open 12 stores in North Carolina, possibly including one in North Raleigh very close to my synagogue. Does Publix believe it can transport its immoral business practices to our backyard?
In the Book of Deuteronomy, we read, You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer. With that in mind, I urge Publix management to follow other reputable companies and put itself on the right side of this issue. With a flick of the pen, it could change the fate of the company, the lives of thousands of workers and the opinions of millions of North Carolina consumers.
We are ready to welcome Publix with our Southern charm. But it all hinges upon whether the company will choose to solely follow its desire for profit or pursue the Bibles desire for justice.
Eric M. Solomon is rabbi at Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh.