This week, I had an opportunity to talk with Guadalupe Gonzalo of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers about their current campaign targeting fast food giant Wendy’s, demanding that the company sign on to their Fair Food Program. The program requires farmers to abide by a code of conduct and submit to inspection by a third party agency, while participating companies (like McDonald’s, Sodexo, and Taco Bell, along with eight other major corporations) agree to buy only certified produce, passing on a penny-per-pound premium that goes directly to workers. It’s had a vital role in improving conditions for Florida farmworkers, with more than 90% of Florida tomatoes being produced under the Fair Food Program today.
Yet, Wendy’s seems to think it can hold itself above the crowd, insisting that it doesn’t need to enter the program. The CIW is holding the company accountable, asking why it thinks it’s acceptable to endanger and exploit farmworkers for cheap produce, and the fight for fair food is gaining national attention. Allies including faith groups, other farmworkers’ collectives, chefs and members of the concerned public are stepping up to defend farmworkers in the face of entrenched attitudes that consider farm labor disposable. Will Wendy’s cave and do the right thing by farmworkers?
Under the Fair Food Program, a couple of things are guaranteed to workers on participating farms. One is the use of time clocks, allowing workers to clock in when they arrive and clock out when they leave. This radically reduces the incidence of wage theft, a historic problem in the fields. As Gonzalo put it, “Whereas in the past we may have worked 12 hours or more, we wouldn’t be paid for that work. We weren’t getting the minimum wage we were guaranteed by law. Now with the timeclocks, we are paid for every minute we are there on the job.”
It doesn’t stop there. One of the biggest problems facing female farmworkers across the nation is the high incidence of sexual assault and harassment in the fields: “…something that was really commonplace for decades in this industry was sexual abuse and sexual harassment on the job — something that female workers experienced. Women often felt there wasn’t any recourse. Felt there weren’t any protections from that kind of abuse. Scared. Scared to say anything — had they spoken up, they would have lost their jobs for bringing up such a complaint.”
That’s different under the Fair Food Program, which mandates a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault and harassment, and demands that farms be accountable for abusive foremen and other personnel. If they don’t adhere to the code of conduct, they’ll no longer be certified, which means they lose out on major buyers. The Fair Food Program essentially protects already existing legal rights, encouraging workers to speak up when they experience abuse.
Wendy’s, however, doesn’t seem to think it needs the Fair Food Program. In a series of press releases, the company has made a number of claims about being “under attack” from the CIW, and then claims it’s participating in the Fair Food Program even though it isn’t. Gonzalo notes that:
Without joining the Fair Food Program, Wendy’s will not be paying out that penny per pound. Equally more important, without joining the program, there’s no monitoring, or enforcement, or transparency. The third party we’ve created, the Fair Food Standards Council, to enforce and make sure corporations are living up to the program…Wendy’s is obviously not subject to that oversight. More than anything, the program works because it has teeth, and growers know that buyers will only buy from them if they respect the code of conduct and the fair food standards.
The company wants to have its cake and eat it too, riding on the coattails of the Fair Food Program without paying the premium or subjecting its suppliers to the scrutiny of the Fair Food Standards Council. Consumers may mistakenly believe that Wendy’s is behaving ethically, thinking that it has joined the ranks of fast food corporations slowly coming around to support farmworker rights, but that’s not actually what’s happening.
Gonzalo says the CIW will continue to lean on Wendy’s and other holdouts with protests outside shareholder meetings, farmworker marches, and other public actions. Hopefully Wendy’s will get with the program, so to speak, and start protecting the rights of those who labor in the fields to bring us our produce. Targeting the fast food industry has proved to be a hugely successful tactic for the CIW and other farmworker rights organizations, because as goes the fast food industry, so go smaller suppliers and corporations.
Ball’s in your court now, Wendy’s.
Photo credit: ThinkStock