Why Farmworkers March Against Wendy’s


When you order fast food, do you think about what it took to get that slice of tomato from the field to your burger?

Depending on the farm, the workers who picked those products may face abusive working conditions, such as withholding wages, debt bondage and forced labour. In some cases, workers from other countries are smuggled and forced to work on farms in the US and Canada. For example, Customs and Border Protection announced an import ban on tomatoes from two Mexican tomato farms in October 2021 due to concerns about abuse and forced labour. The following month, the US Department of Justice arrested 24 people involved in smuggling farm workers from Mexico and Central America to ranches in South Georgia.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a human rights organization founded in 1993 by tomato pickers in Florida and now fighting for better conditions for farm workers, has improved working conditions on farms through its Fair Food Program. That program, which won a presidential award in 2015 for “outstanding efforts to combat human trafficking,” facilitates partnerships between farm workers, farmers and food vendors, establishes certain codes of conduct and regulations, including access to shade, water and breaks, and oversees compliance. Those food retailers promise to buy only from Fair Food Program-approved farms, as well as pay a premium — 1 to 4 cents more per pound of tomatoes — passed on by growers to farm workers as a bonus to their pay; they also promise to drop suppliers who violate Fair Food Program standards.

When you get a burger from McDonald’s, a sandwich from Subway, or a taco from Taco Bell, you can be sure that the tomatoes on it were picked without forced labor or human rights violations; they all work together with the Fair Food program. But one notable fast food chain doesn’t: Wendy’s.

The Fair Food program currently benefits thousands of farm workers, primarily in Florida. When it was founded there, Wendy’s stopped buying winter tomatoes from Florida, opting to source them from Mexico, where forced labor and poor farm conditions are more common (the company has said the move was “unrelated to the Fair Food Program” ). In an email to Fast Company, a spokesperson for Wendy’s said it has its own code of conduct by which it adheres to suppliers, and that it requires external assessments of labor practices for product suppliers. The company has also highlighted the use of hydroponic greenhouses as part of a responsible supply chain. “The idea that participating in the Fair Food program and buying open-field tomatoes is the only way Wendy’s can demonstrate responsibility in our supply chain is wrong,” the spokesperson wrote.

But the effectiveness of such social assessments and audits has been questioned by experts, including within US Customs and Border Protection; others have noted that greenhouse farms are not inherently exempt from promoting poor working conditions. With Wendy’s competitors like McDonald’s, Burger King and Yum Brands signed up to the Fair Foods program, the question has become, why isn’t Wendy’s doing that?

Today, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is leading an 8-mile march in Palm Beach — home to Nelson Peltz, chairman of Wendy’s board of directors and CEO of Trian Partners, the fast-food chain’s largest institutional shareholder — and is urging Wendy’s to join. at the Food Program fair. The coalition expects more than 600 people to participate, including human rights activist Kerry Kennedy, Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski and others. Prior to the action, Fast Company communicated via email with Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a senior coalition employee and one of the march organizers, about why the coalition is taking this action now and what is at stake for farm workers in North America.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Fast Company: How did you come to join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)?

Gerardo Reyes Chavez: I grew up in Zacatecas, Mexico, and have been farming since I was 11 years old. When I came to Florida as a farm worker, I picked tomatoes, oranges, and watermelons, depending on the season. I saw firsthand how farmers stole farm workers’ wages, tried to put us into debt by selling us poorly cooked food before giving us our first paycheck, and provided terrible housing. I learned about CIW because I lived in a trailer with workers the CIW had helped escape from a forced labor operation. Forced labor has plagued American agriculture for decades, prompting federal prosecutors to call Flordia “ground zero for modern slavery” in the 1990s.

I joined CIW to try and change things after my friends invited me on a two-week, 230-mile march across Florida, from Fort Myers to Orlando. We made a 40-foot-tall papier-mâché replica of the Statue of Liberty—redesigned as a farm worker with a bucket under her arm and a tomato held in the air instead of a torch—that led us on that march. Today, that statue is on permanent display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, DC

What is the experience for farm workers before a food retailer participates in the Fair Food Program and after?

Before the Fair Food program, farm workers faced widespread, unchecked abuses ranging from wage theft to sexual assault, blatant security violations, lack of access to clean water and bathrooms, and, as we have seen all too often in our history at CIW, forced labour. And since there was no real way to get help without the risk of retaliation, those circumstances remained largely unchallenged for decades. Unfortunately, this is still the reality for the majority of farm workers who do not work on Fair Food Program farms. Because the program is based on enforceable agreements backed by market impact, Fair Food Program farm workers have real protections they can enforce without fear of retaliation.

The program’s zero-tolerance policy, bolstered by the loss of sales to the FFP’s 14 participating buyers (including companies like Whole Foods, Walmart, McDonald’s, Burger King and Aramark), is helping to end the culture of impunity.

You’re organizing this march specifically to hold Wendy’s accountable. How long has this effort with Wendy been going on?

We launched our Wendy’s boycott in March 2016, the same month Harper’s Magazine confirmed that Wendy’s was a customer of Bioparques, a Mexican agri-industry giant previously under intense scrutiny by the Los Angeles Times.

We are taking this action now as another massive wave of modern slavery persecution in North American agriculture is making headlines, making the need for major buyers of products, like Wendy’s, to commit to the Fair Food Program greater than ever. .

At the same time, the same US law enforcement agencies are telling retailers in no uncertain terms that if they want to fight forced labor in their supply chains, they must join the Fair Food program. An FAQ published by CBP [says] “More needs to be invested in employee-driven solutions. Examples of this are the Fair Food Program and Bangladesh Accord.” A month later, the U.S. Department of Labor, which was deeply involved in the recent persecution in Georgia, said the FFP is “something every grower and food vendor should be a part of. The success of the program is absolutely undeniable.”

So we march in Palm Beach with a simple question for Mr. Peltz: Can Wendy guarantee there is no slavery in his supply chain? That is it. We know the Fair Food program would help him assure his customers and shareholders of that answer.

If Wendy’s isn’t listening, what’s at stake for farm workers?

Recent reports of slavery in agricultural supply chains have clearly heightened the urgency of farm workers’ appeal to Wendy’s to join her colleagues in the Fair Food program. We know that the Fair Food program is the answer to reduce the risk of these types of human rights violations. So we will never give up hope that they will listen and take steps to get involved. The stakes are nothing short of life and death, as we saw in the Georgia case, so for that reason we can never give up.

There is also an element of shareholder activism here. Did that increase the pressure on the company?

We’re excited about shareholder activism because we believe Wendy’s investors want to see real action here. Last year, 95% of shareholders voted in favor of a resolution calling for transparency about the effectiveness of human rights protections for farm workers in Wendy’s supply chain. But we have since learned that Wendy’s has not provided all of the information that shareholders voted for. Major investors, including New York City’s control office — which oversees one of the country’s largest pension funds — sent a letter to Wendy’s in March expressing frustration at Wendy’s unresponsiveness to shareholders, pledging to consider the matter. to take when voting as shareholders of Wendy’s in the future.

As we learned in the Fair Food program, having words on paper is one thing, but compliance only happens when there are real consequences. We hope Wendy’s shareholders will hold the board of directors accountable not only for not listening to farm workers and consumers, but now even to shareholders in their own companies. This is one of the reasons we will be marching past JPMorgan and Wells Fargo on the march, as both are shareholders of Wendy, and we call on all shareholders to hold Wendy’s board of directors to account for not adequately responding to shareholders about this issue.


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