According to the US Department of Labor website, Labor Day is “a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.” Labor Day was first celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York City, and in 1894 Congress passed an act making Labor Day a national holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September. It seems now is the perfect time to discover Food Chains, the fascinating 2014 documentary by Sanjay Rawal. Food Chains is an indictment of huge supermarket chains that control the produce industry. Narrated by the Oscar winning actor, Forest Whitaker, and featuring Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and actress and farm worker advocate, Eva Longoria, this film sends a powerful message about the injustices done to farm workers.

While Food Chains depicts the exploitation of the millions of migrant farmworkers in the US, much of the film’s narrative focuses on the particular struggle of farm workers in Immokalee, Florida (an area of the state that produces much of the country’s tomato crop year round), the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), and the Fair Trade Program. Many of the film’s main events concern a 2012 hunger strike/protest by the CIW outside the headquarters of Publix Foods, Florida’s largest supermarket chain.

The goal of the CIW and leaders like Gerardo Reyes Chavez is to demand from farm corporations/producers to pay farm workers one penny more per pound of product picked and eradicate worker abuse. This is because the average farmworker can work 10 hours per day, picking nearly 4,000 pounds of tomatoes, and still only earn a mere $40 a day. Depending on how much they can endure, a worker then makes about $300-$400 per week in good times, while only $50-$100 per week in bad. Annually their income falls far below the poverty level, as their net incomes is somewhere between $10,500–$13,000 per year. Most of the profits from their labor is captured by supermarket chains, like Safeway, Walmart, Kroger and Publix. It is noted that Publix sales top $30 billion annually.

Director Rawal opens the film with descriptions of the deplorable working conditions of workers as spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, labor leader Cesar Chavez, Robert F. Kennedy and Senator Bernie Sanders – all who refer to these conditions as “modern slavery”. Early in the film Rawal includes excerpts from a 1960 CBS Reports documentary called Harvest of Shame, hosted by famed anchorman Edward R. Murrow, wherein Morrow describes the “forgotten workers” who struggled in the same fields of Immokalee over 50 years earlier.

Rawal also incorporated the exploited workers of California’s Napa Valley and how the wealthy landowners have made housing unreasonably unaffordable for the thousands of farmworkers who harvest grapes for vintners and other produce for the country’s consumption. Special emphasis is also noted how female farm workers endure incredible sexual harassment in the fields and because of their precarious status, these violations are rarely reported.

The message of Food Chains is ultimately rather direct to the viewer: the way we can work to correct this injustice is to demand our supermarkets agree to join the Fair Food Program and raise workers’ income, stop inhumane abuses of workers, and make life more bearable, or boycott these companies.

About The Author

Syd Slobodnik

Syd Slobodnik has been writing for Illini Media publications since 1975: for The Daily Illini from 1975 to 1978 and from 1984 to 1988, and for buzz since 2003. Syd teaches numerous film courses at the University of Illinois in the English Department. He also cohosts a monthly television program which reviews old films that remind you of recent films you may have seen, called "If You Liked, You'll Love" on the Parkland Channel.

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