Ohio companies stay the course against determined farmworkers

Silvia Perez prepares to address a rally demanding that Kroger adopt a program of social responsibility for farmworkers in its supply chain. The rally, organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, was held outside the School for Creative and Performing Arts where Kroger shareholders met on June 22.

Farmworkers were rebuffed again by Kroger and Wendy’s but persist with a program to advance the rights of workers and to address the ethical supply chain concerns of retailers.

Even though their competitors in the retail grocery and fast-food industries rely on the Fair Food Program to ensure that Florida tomatoes are harvested under verifiable labor standards, both Cincinnati-based Kroger and Columbus-based Wendy’s rejected farmworkers’ requests to join the program at recent shareholder meetings–Kroger for the eighth time and Wendy’s for the fourth time in as many years.

Kroger and Wendy’s remain defiant holdouts against a program of corporate social responsibility that many say is the best way to end the exploitation of farmworkers who face sexual violence, physical and verbal abuse, wage violations, and long hours in harsh working conditions for little pay.

The companies claim their corporate codes of conduct along with periodic auditing can insure that tomatoes in their supply chains come from responsible growers who do not exploit workers.

The Ohio State University cited Wendy’s code of conduct as justification for its recent decision to renew a lease for a Wendy’s fast-food operation in the OSU Wexner Medical Center over the objections of students supporting farmworkers.

Farmworkers say these corporate codes of conduct are not enforceable. They exist on paper, but they are not real, says Guatemalan native Silvia Perez, a Florida farmworker for more than 10 years and now a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, speaking through a translator.

When working on farms that did not participate in the Fair Food Program, Perez says she experienced sexual harassment, no shade from the sun, no breaks, bad drinking water, hours of unpaid wait time, and loose recordkeeping that left her unsure whether she was being fully paid for her time and for the tomatoes she picked. Most pickers fill about 150 buckets a day, equivalent to 4,800 pounds, at a piece-rate of 50 to 60 cents per bucket.  She could complain, she says, but she might be fired if she did.

Under the Fair Food Program, says Perez, workers are educated in their rights and sexual harassment is not tolerated. Workers can make a complaint without fear of retaliation. A complaint sets in motion a process of investigation by an independent agency, and corrective action can resolve some issues within a matter of days. Independent audits, in which at least half a grower’s workforce are interviewed, supplement the worker complaint process. Growers that commit zero-tolerance violations or fail to take corrective action are suspended or expelled from the program.

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Farmworkers in Virginia receive training in their rights under the Fair Food Code of Conduct. Photo provided by CIW.

CIW’s Fair Food Program has improved the wages and working conditions of workers and largely eliminated labor trafficking from Florida’s tomato industry, which has been called ‘ground-zero’ for modern slavery in the U.S., according to the CNN Freedom Project and others. “As the culture of compliance has become imbedded in the Florida tomato fields, there are far fewer violations in 2017 than there were in 2010,” according to James Brudney, professor of law at Fordham University.

“The Fair Food Program is the most widely recognized social responsibility program in the nation,” said Perez at Kroger’s annual shareholder meeting on June 22. “No other social responsibility program even comes close.”

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Allies at the CIW rally included the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, Student/Farmworker Alliance, Ohio Fair Food, Slow Food Cincinnati, Iron Workers Local 44, AFL-CIO, and First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati.

Click here to see a gallery of photos by Paul Davis from the rally at the Kroger shareholder meeting.

Major food retailers like Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market, Fresh Market, and Ahold USA (which operates Stop & Shop and Giant Food) have joined FFP. As participating buyers in the program, they agree to pay a penny-per-pound premium and to purchase their tomatoes only from participating growers. Workers receive the penny-per-pound premium in their paychecks from growers.

Subway, the nation’s largest fast-food chain, McDonald’s, Burger King, Chipotle, and Yum Brands (which operates Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut) as well as food service providers like Aramark, the Compass Group, Bon Appetit Management Company, and Sodexo have also joined FFP as participating buyers.

Because participating buyers can only source their winter tomatoes from growers in good standing with the Fair Food Code of Conduct, FFP creates a market incentive for growers to respect the rights of their workers, even when those rights are broader than those guaranteed by law.

Participating growers in Florida employ about 30,000 farmworkers, representing more than 90 percent of farmworkers in the state. But just one percent of the estimated 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the country.

Wendy’s decision to stop sourcing its tomatoes from Florida growers and to source from Mexican growers instead prompted the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in May 2016 to ask its 1.7 million members to join CIW in “a nationwide boycott of Wendy’s products.”  

“Escaping to Mexico to source your tomatoes does not relieve your moral quandary, it deepens it,” said Rick Ufford-Chase, a representative of the church, speaking at Wendy’s shareholders meeting on May 23 .

Half of the tomatoes consumed in the U.S. come from mega-farms in Mexico that use advanced food safety and growing techniques in their fields and greenhouses, but subject workers to harsh conditions and exploitation, according to an investigative report by the Los Angeles Times. Farmworkers are mostly indigenous people from Mexico’s poorest regions. They work six days a week for the equivalent of $8 to $12 a day, trapped in squalid camps, their wages withheld to prevent them from leaving, and often going into debt for necessities at company stores.

While large corporations are attentive to the strict U.S. laws that govern the safety and cleanliness of imported fruits and vegetables, they have done little to enforce their social responsibility guidelines for workers at these mega-farms, according to the report. It is not a corporate priority because “there is little public awareness of harsh condition at labor camps.” And in Mexico, the government does not hold large growers to account. Because they are wealthy and politically influential, they act with impunity.

Ufford-Chase cited a rare instance of government intervention at a labor camp of one of Mexico’s biggest growers, Bioparques de Occidente, which supplies tomatoes to Wendy’s. Three workers escaped and complained to government authorities, which raided the farm. Bioparques not only withheld wages but kept 275 workers, including 24 children, in the camp against their will and beat some who tried to escape, according to laborers and Mexican authorities.

Wendy’s brand identity is built largely around food quality. “The quality of our food sets us apart from everyone else,” said Todd Penegor, president and CEO at Wendy’s in a 2017 corporate press release.

The company prides itself on creating “one of the industry’s first Animal Welfare Advisory Councils in 2001 to review and strengthen animal care standards by suppliers.” Its chickens are free of MSG and will be free of antibiotics by the close of 2017, and its chickens are 20 percent smaller than their competitors, which enhances their “tenderness and juiciness” for customers. Its beef is “fresh, never frozen.” And its tomatoes are never pre-sliced, but purchased whole and sliced daily in each restaurant.

Based on familiarity and favorability of its brand, Wendy’s is one of only four restaurants in Tenet Partner’s 2016 top 100 most powerful brands, ranking 57th. The “distinct brand voice” of Wendy’s social media efforts has garnered a lot of attention by marketers. “As it turns out,” quipped one commentator, “the very best thing about Wendy’s may not be their burgers, but their Twitter account.”

CIW’s Ban the Braids campaign to push Wendy’s restaurants from on-campus property–at OSU, University of Michigan, Vanderbilt, and other universities–to off-campus locations is spearheaded by the OSU chapter of the Student/Farmworker Alliance.

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A representative of the Ohio State University chapter of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, Henry Anton Peller, calls encouragement to supporters.

“We would love to see Wendy’s take a hit on its sales, but more emphatically the campaign is about the brand, about revealing that behind the smiling face is a dark truth,” says Henry Anton Peller, a graduate student at OSU in agricultural economics and soil science and a member of S/FA.

S/FA and CIW pressured OSU officials for three years to make good on the university’s promise to renew the lease with the Wendy’s franchisee for space in the Wexner Medical Center only if Wendy’s joined the FFP. But OSU renewed the lease with Thomas 5 Limited, a company owned by family members of Dave Thomas, Wendy’s founder, even though Wendy’s did not join the FFP.

The university reviewed Wendy’s Code of Conduct for Suppliers and found that it “meets or exceeds our requirements for assurance” that “safe and appropriate conditions exist” for farmworkers in the U.S. and Canada, according to a letter to Wendy’s president and CEO. The university’s letter was silent about farmworkers in Mexico.

Wendy’s code is “entirely voluntary” for suppliers, said Brudney in a letter to The Lantern, OSU’s student newspaper. The company sets out “expectations” of suppliers–such as “our suppliers should ensure all employees work in compliance with applicable laws and regulations”–but there are “no consequences for non-compliance.”

“The university leaves students no choice but to escalate our actions,” says Presser, who sees OSU as complicit with Wendy’s in the exploitation of farmworkers. In March, Presser participated in a weeklong fast with 19 other students to support the Wendy’s Boycott and the Boot the Braids campaign. This action at OSU inspired a series of rolling 3-day fasts at 19 other colleges and universities.

CIW’s Fair Food agreements have expanded from Florida up the east coast to include growers in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey. The agreements cover not only tomatoes but also peppers and strawberries. Nearly 35,000 farmworkers in seven states are now protected by the Fair Food Program.

By Mike Brown, mbrown.c4ad@gmail.com