Kroger rejects program to protect farmworkers

Activists outside the Kroger shareholder meeting on June 23. Photo: Paul Davis, C4AD.

For the seventh time in as many years, Kroger refused at its annual shareholder meeting on June 23 to join the Fair Food Program–a collaboration between buyers, growers, and workers in support of fair wages and humane labor standards on Florida’s tomato farms.

The world’s third-largest retailer was asked to join the program by representatives of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker-based human rights organization headquartered in Immokalee, Florida.

Florida is the nation’s largest tomato producer, according to industry sources, with more than 31,000 acres under cultivation and nearly 33,000 pickers needed to harvest the fruit between October and June.

In rejecting the plea of CIW representatives to join the FFP, Chairman and CEO Rodney McMullen said the company expects suppliers to follow its own code of conduct, which the company enforces through annual audits and by terminating supplier contracts for noncompliance.

Lupe Gonzalo with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers walks with advocates outside the Kroger shareholder meeting. Photo: Paul Davis, C4AD.
Lupe Gonzalo with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers walks with advocates outside the Kroger shareholder meeting. Photo: Paul Davis, C4AD.

Lupe Gonzalo, a leader with CIW, found Kroger’s decision disappointing. But CIW will be back, she said speaking through an interpreter, “Until they say ‘yes’” because the company’s code of conduct and its audits do not protect workers from exploitation, while the FFP does.

Gonzalo, a Guatemalan immigrant, knows firsthand the substandard wages and working conditions of migrant farmwork and the workplace culture of physical and verbal abuse, sexual harassment, chemical hazards, and wage theft.

For 12 years, Gonzalo picked tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, blueberries, strawberries, and other fruits and vegetables from Florida up the Eastern Seaboard to Virginia.

“It is important that Kroger deals directly with farmworkers because they are the ones who know what’s happening in the fields,” said Gonzalo.

“The FFSC’s experience to date indicates a wide gulf between the FFP’s binding enforcement model versus the corporate-driven voluntary compliance model employed by Kroger and others.”

Judge Laura Safer Espinoza

Retired New York state supreme court justice

Director of the Fair Food Standards Council

“Historically, we have not had access to clean water or bathrooms or the right to take a break in the shade,” said Julia de la Cruz, a former farmworker and now a CIW leader, speaking through an interpreter. “All kinds of problems were present. Sexual harassment in the extreme. Worker slavery.”

Julia de la Cruz, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, protests for change in how Kroger manages its supply chain for agricultural workers. Photo: Paul Davis, C4AD.
Julia de la Cruz, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, protests for change in how Kroger manages its supply chain for agricultural workers. Photo: Paul Davis, C4AD.

“But today, I can report that what is going on in the fields of Florida has changed quite a bit,” said de la Cruz. “Now we have the right to rest in the shade. Now we have the right to clean bathrooms nearby. Now we have the right to clean drinking water.

“And now if a worker does not make the equivalent of minimum wage (on a piece rate basis) for all the hours they’ve worked in a week, the company is required to pay the difference.

“All of this is thanks to the Fair Food Program, and the efforts of countless workers and others, who have convinced these major corporations to join in,” said de la Cruz.

The FFP program relies on the volume purchasing power of participating corporate buyers–retailers like Wal-Mart, Fresh Market, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Ahold and restaurant chains like McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, and Chipotle–to create incentives for participating growers to comply with the program’s code of conduct.

These participating buyers agree to purchase tomatoes only from growers in good standing with the FFP. As of June 17, there were 14 participating buyers and 17 participating growers in the program. These growers represent over 90 percent of Florida’s tomato industry, according to CIW.

To protect their sales to participating buyers, growers are motivated to take preventive measures to insure compliance with the FFP and to cooperate on audits and complaint resolutions.

Participating buyers also agree to pay a “penny per pound” premium, which goes to farmworkers.

Manuel Perez, Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, Nely Rodriguez, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Carmen Mason, Alliance for Fair Food, and Mother Paula Jackson, Rector at Church of Our Savior, prepare to enter Kroger shareholder meeting.
Manuel Perez, Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, Nely Rodriguez, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Carmen Mason, Alliance for Fair Food, and Mother Paula Jackson, Rector at Church of Our Savior, prepare to enter Kroger shareholder meeting.

The “penny per pound” premium might increase a farmworker’s pay by $50 to $100 per week during the tomato season, depending on the picker’s speed and the season’s crop, said Gonzalo. Without this boost, most migrant farm workers make between $10,000 to $12,000 per year, she said.

“Since the 2011 implementation of the Fair Food Program, spearheaded by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Florida tomato worker wages have increased by 50 to 70 percent, conditions in the fields are some of the best in the nation, wage fraud and theft have disappeared and there has not been a single reported instance of sexual assault or modern-day slavery among participating growers,” wrote Susan L. Marquis, dean of the Frederick S. Pardee RAND Graduate School, in Newsweek.

Gonzalo now uses her years of experience in the fields to train migrant farmworkers. The FFP provides that CIW educate workers on the farms and on company time to ensure that workers understand their rights and responsibilities, including the right to make complaints without fear of retaliation.

Workers, when they know their rights, are the most effective monitors, said Gonzalo. She compared the 24/7 compliance monitoring of 30,000 farmworkers trained in their FFP rights to the 1,000 or so investigators with the U.S. Dept. of Labor or the occasional audit by Kroger.

Complaints of violations of the FFP’s human-rights based code of conduct can be submitted through a 24-hour, worker complaint hotline staffed by trained, bilingual investigators. The code has zero-tolerance for forced labor, child labor, violence, and sexual assault, and it differentiates between systemic and non-systemic violations.

Compliance with the FFP and its code of conduct is overseen by the Fair Food Standards Council, an independent, third-party organization. The FFSC is headed by retired New York state supreme court judge Laura Safer Espinoza.

The FFSC investigates and resolves all complaints normally through a collaborative fact-finding and resolution process with participating growers. During the 2014-15 growing season, the FFSC resolved almost 45 percent of the 443 complaints it received within one week and 79 percent in under one month, according to its 2015 annual report.

Martha Stephens walks in support of farmworkers in front of the Kroger shareholder meeting.
Martha Stephens walks in support of farmworkers in front of the Kroger shareholder meeting.

FFSC audits each grower at least annually to assess and improve compliance with the FFP code of conduct. Corrective action plans are developed to help establish management systems that would facilitate compliance. FFSC monitors implementation of corrective action plans through audits and the complaint procedure.

During the 2014-15 growing season, FFSC placed four farms on probation for failure to pass their remedial audits. No suspensions were issued. One farm was successfully reinstated into the program after suspension, and three farms had their probationary status lifted.

In an email statement to C4AD, Judge Espinoza wrote, “The FFSC’s experience to date indicates a wide gulf between the FFP’s binding enforcement model versus the corporate-driven voluntary compliance model employed by Kroger and others.”

The purchasing power of large retailers like Kroger can be used to elevate or exert “destructive downward pressure” on the wages and working conditions of domestic farmworkers, according to FFSC.

This is especially important as “Florida growers have faced increasing price pressure from lower cost producers in Mexico, where the cost advantage is driven in large part by lower wages and inferior, often grossly abusive working conditions.”

By Mike Brown, mbrown.c4ad@gmail.com