Barry Estabrook happily reports that Trader Joe’s has finally ceded to the demands of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworkers rights group that has sought better wages and working conditions for agricultural laborers engaged in tomato and citrus picking.

CIW’s victory is impressive because of its labor law implications. One of its main objections has always been that its membership is still paid by the piece. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, farm laborers are not entitled to minimum wage or overtime as a matter of law if they are employed in piece work. Trader Joe’s concession means that it will only enter into purchasing contracts with suppliers that eschew these exemptions and pay more than minimally required for their labor. CIW’s victory marks the rare occasion where agricultural activism has succeeded in forcing a company to do more than the bare minimum mandated by federal law. Trader Joe’s dramatic and long-overdue concessions will most definitely take the form of a boring legal document, a purchasing contract that stipulates how the producer’s workers will be paid.

Shamed into forsaking a perfectly legal but morally unethical labor law exemption, Trader Joe’s now lauds its course correction on the company’s website:

“Trader Joe’s is cherished by its customers for a number of reasons, but high on that list is the company’s commitment to ethical purchasing practices. With this agreement, Trader Joe’s reaffirms that commitment and sends a strong — and timely — message of support to the Florida growers who are choosing to do the right thing, investing in improved labor standards, despite the challenges of a difficult marketplace and tough economic times.”

Trader Joe’s fought for years to continue using the exemptions,  reluctantly adopted better wage standards after a lengthy PR drubbing, then instantly enshrined its new ethical production standard all its future purchasing contracts. Putting an agricultural or a production ethos into legally enforceable terms was Trader Joe’s clearest path towards making a lasting promise to its conscientious consumers. Trader Joe’s learned how to do this reluctantly, but there is no reason why a more forward-thinking management cannot preemptively chart a course of corporate responsibility without all the lengthy arm-twisting CIW had to go through.

Some businesses, like the ones I profiled at the start of the new year, understand intuitively that they are only as good as the legally binding promises they make. Brooklyn Bouillon and Two Guys in Vermont have built their business models around how they treat their workers and the symbiotic deals they cut with their input providers because they are targeting conscientious consumers. More traditional companies may come around reluctantly after getting repeatedly beaten over the head with bad press, but the smaller companies are more nimbly leading the way.

Consumers are beginning to demand this kind of transparency from the people that make their food. Earlier in the week, the Humane Society and United Egg Producers got together to adopt more humane standards for laying hens. The Internets went bananas with the “bitter enemies – now best friends” angle, but I think everyone might have missed the more interesting point in both these stories. CIW and The Humane Society, along with the kinds of food entrepreneurs we like on this blog, are more perceptive than the corporate giants about the changes taking place in the market. Their ethos is more closely in line with how the public wants their eggs, tomatoes, and other foods produced. The corporate types understood (eventually) that the best way to keep up was to codify their newly enlightened ethics in their legal documents. It’s a lesson they could have observed from a contemporary food entrepreneur if they had been paying attention.