By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — Farmworkers who say Trader Joe's exploits tomato pickers rallied outside the grocer's Upper West Side location on Monday, shouting "Si se puede," and waving signs demanding "Dignity for Farmworkers."
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a Florida-based workers' rights group, organized the protest to pressure Trader Joe's into signing a "fair food agreement" that would raise tomato pickers' pay and guarantee the grocer only does business with suppliers who treat their workers fairly, a spokesman said.
Whole Foods and McDonald's have signed the agreement, so has a major growers' group in Florida, according to the spokesman.
The agreement raises pay for tomato pickers from 50 cents to 85 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. It also ensures that growers follow a code of conduct to safeguard workers from exploitation.
A manager at the store referred questions to Trader Joe's corporate office in California. Calls to that office weren't immediately returned.
A Coalition of Immokalee Workers spokesman said that Trader Joe's told them they already buy tomatoes from suppliers that meet high standards for worker treatment, so they don't think it's necessary to sign the fair food agreement.
Nely Rodriguez, a 46-year-old former farmworker from Mexico who now works for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said the agreement was the only way to protect workers.
"As workers we face a range of poor working conditions including very low wages and human rights violations including cases of forced labor," Rodriguez said through a translator. "We'd like the consumers who shop at Trader Joe's to ask the company to use its purchasing power to improve conditions in the field."
A young man handing out flyers to passers-by shouted that Trader Joe's was supporting "modern-day slavery."
"It says they're green, it says they're healthful," the man shouted, referring to Trader Joe's image. "It's not healthful to the workers."
Howard Kaufman, a shopper who said Trader Joe's was his preferred grocery store, said he was troubled by the protest.
"It doesn't feel comfortable to shop in a place that's participating in unfair labor practices," Kaufman said. "I'd like to think Trader Joe's is more enlightened."
Kaufman said he liked shopping at Trader Joe's because it stocked "excellent" products at low prices, and store employees seemed cheerful and well-treated. "You'd expect that would extend beyond their own employees to their suppliers," Kaufman said.
Upper West sider Harriett Feldman said the protest would force her to make other shopping plans. "I can't go there, because I can't cross a picket line," Feldman said.