Farmworkers and customers ask: How will Kroger use its purchasing power?

Kroger shareholder meeting, June 25, 2015, at Cincinnati Music Hall

Each year since 2010, a delegation of farmworkers and their allies has asked The Kroger Co. to use the company’s substantial purchasing power to help protect workers from abuse in the tomato fields of Florida. Every year the world’s third largest retailer has refused.

On June 23, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their supporters will ask again, when Kroger convenes its annual stockholder meeting at Music Hall.

CIW is asking Kroger to buy tomatoes only from growers that abide by the Fair Food Code of Conduct and to pay participating growers an additional penny per pound, all of which goes to the farmworkers. These participating growers employ approximately 30,000 farmworkers in Florida.

The code of conduct and the price premium–which together form the foundation of the Fair Food Program–were developed and refined by tomato workers, participating growers, and participating corporate buyers.

Fast-food chains like McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, Taco Bell, and Chipotle have signed on to the FFP as participating buyers. Food retailers like WalMart, Trader Joe’s, Fresh Market, and Ahold USA have also joined.

“It is the market power of the participating buyers, whose commitment to only purchase from growers in good standing with the program, that gives the model its teeth,” said Greg Asbed, a CIW co-founder with Lucas Benitez, speaking at the UN Business and Human Rights Annual Forum in 2015.

A CBS Sunday Morning segment that aired in August 2015 talks about how FFP is making a difference in the lives of Florida tomato pickers.

As recently as 2005, the tomato fields of Florida were dubbed “ground zero” for modern-day slavery in the United States by Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Molloy.

Large corporate buyers at the top of the supply chain leveraged their purchasing power to demand lower prices for farm products. Growers squeezed costs from their operations at the bottom of the food chain, which resulted in downward pressure on farmworker wages.

Vulnerable farmworkers continue to be almost entirely immigrants–both men and women–from Mexico, Central America, and Haiti.

CIW supporters rally in front of Music Hall during the 2015 Kroger shareholders meeting.
CIW supporters rally in front of Music Hall during the 2015 Kroger shareholders meeting.

On the farms of participating growers, FFP has proven effective at improving wages and protecting farmworkers against forced labor, violence, sexual harassment and rape, retaliation for complaints of code violations, wage theft, discrimination, and negligent endangerment.

FFP also ensures that workers employed by participating growers receive rest breaks, access to shade, protective equipment, adequate drinking water, field toilets, and a chance to participate on worker health and safety committees.

Workers also receive paid work time to learn about their rights under the fair food code of conduct and the system for filing and resolving complaints.

FFP is “enforcement-obsessed,” Asbed said. “That enforcement is driven by the informed participation of workers themselves, whose role as frontline defenders of their own rights ensures wall-to-wall monitoring of the program’s human rights based code of conduct.”

“Unlike most social-responsibility programs, the Fair Food Program is fully enforced and, as a result, has had real, measurable effects,” wrote the dean of the Frederick S. Pardee RAND Graduate School Susan L. Marquis in the RAND blog.

CIW claims that FFP now applies to 90 percent of the Florida tomato industry. But this success has led some companies, such as Ohio-based Wendy’s, that receive the benefit of sourcing ethical tomatoes without paying the price premium or committing to purchase from participating growers, to claim they serve FFP tomatoes, implying it is a participating buyer when it is not.

Most non-participating companies wouldn’t dare be so bold to use their status as an FFP freerider for a public relations benefit.

Rabbi George Barnard offers a prayer with supporters at the June 2015 Kroger stockholder meeting.
Rabbi George Barnard offers a prayer with supporters at the June 2015 Kroger stockholder meeting.

Kroger rejected past requests to join FFP. Although it has joined the Responsible Jewellery Council to insure ethical practices in the supply chain “from mine to retail” for diamonds and gold, Kroger prefers to follow its own code of vendor conduct for the tomato supply chain. The code of conduct is incorporated into the standard form vendor agreement for perishable agricultural products.

By the terms of the vendor agreement, Kroger may select a third-party to audit the vendor’s compliance with the code of conduct, and it may terminate the agreement for noncompliance with certain elements of the code. But there is no requirement in the agreement for a periodic audit of code compliance by tomato suppliers or the domestic growers that supply them.

Kroger also sources tomatoes from Mexico, whose growers have a reputation for harsh exploitation of workers according to a Los Angeles Times investigation and for child and forced labor according to information compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor.

According to the Kroger Social Responsibility Audit fact sheet, foreign suppliers are required to schedule an annual on-site audit of their assembly, packing, or processing facilities located outside of the United States. Kroger requires that Société Générale de Surveillance conduct the audit and that the supplier pay for it.

“We have a zero tolerance policy for human rights violations in our supply chain,” Kroger said in its ninth annual sustainability report dated 2015.

If a supplier facility is found to have a zero tolerance violation–child labor, inadequate emergency exits, or attempted bribery of the auditor–then the audit is not approved and the supplier cannot ship product to Kroger “until violations are resolved and a satisfactory [corrective action plan] has been provided to the Company.” In addition, Kroger requires a follow up audit within 60 days.

Most of the major U.S. corporations have codes of conduct or social responsibility guidelines, “but these codes and guidelines have little or no impact without strict reporting and enforcement protocols and consequences for violations, said Marquis.

The Fair Food Program “is the best workplace-monitoring program I’ve seen in the U.S.,” said Janice R. Fine, a labor relations professor at Rutgers, as reported in the New York Times.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers “can certainly be a model for agriculture across the U.S. If anybody is going to lead the way and teach people how it’s done, it’s them,” Fine said.

Elena Stein, Alliance for Fair Food, and Julia de la Cruz, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, speak to supporters before entering the June 2015 Kroger shareholder meeting.
Elena Stein, Alliance for Fair Food, and Julia de la Cruz, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, speak to supporters before entering the June 2015 Kroger shareholder meeting.

The program is expanding. In June 2015, after four seasons of successful implementation across the Florida tomato industry, the FFP expanded to several tomato operations in Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey.

During the 2015-2016 growing season, the program is expanding to crops other than tomatoes for the first time, including several major Florida growers of bell peppers and strawberries.

Marquis suggested that the program also be expanded to farms in Mexico, where Wendy’s now sources most of its tomatoes.

In March, CIW escalated its fair food campaign with Wendy’s by calling for a national consumer boycott of the hamburger chain, the world’s third largest. It is CIW’s second national boycott since its founding in 1993.

By Mike Brown,