When the executives of Trian Partners at 280 Park Avenue in Manhattan arrived at their office building last week, they were greeted by workers used to a completely different kind of daily grind.
Holding signs that read “Yo Ayuno Por Un Futuro Mejor Para Mis Hijos” (“I fast for a better future for my children,”) farmworkers from Florida’s tomato fields chanted “¡Nelson, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!” (“Nelson, listen! We are in this fight!”) and “Boycott Wendy’s!”
On Thursday, the fifth and final day of the Freedom Fast, organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a group of fasting workers marched to call attention to the fact that Wendy’s is the only major fast food chain that has not signed on to the Fair Food Program (FFP). CIW is an award-winning farm labor initiative that won a MacArthur “genius grant” and has raised wages, improved working conditions, and helped curb sexual harassment and abuse against women since 2011.
“We know that Nelson Peltz [the non-executive chairman of Wendy’s] has the power to tell Wendy’s to sign the Fair Food Agreement,” said Lupe Gonzalo, who worked in Florida’s fields picking tomatoes and other vegetables for 12 years and is now one of CIW’s lead organizers. “And what the Fair Food Program means is that after many, many years, we, as farmworkers, are finally able to have basic rights in the workplace.”
The Freedom Fast
Gonzalo and about 70 other farmworkers and supporters wore yellow armbands to signify they had been fasting since the previous Sunday. While their energy seemed high, many were bundled up in puffy jackets, scarves, and blankets, visibly cold after a week of standing outside, hungry, while the temperature hovered around freezing. On the third day of the fast, they also had to endure snow and freezing rain.
“We might not have millions of dollars like the big corporations, but we have our bodies to show that we’re serious,” Gonzalo said. “In the industry we’re representing, so many people don’t have enough to eat every day because … their jobs don’t provide wages that allow them to support themselves and their families. For us, to go five days without food is nothing.”
According to a 2016 report, food workers earn the lowest wages in the country and rely heavily on public assistance to feed their families. In addition to low wages, farmworkers are also exempt from many standard labor protections, such as the right to days off, overtime pay, and to organize and collectively bargain. And because the majority are undocumented immigrants, they’re often afraid to speak up about working conditions and labor abuses.
Sexual harassment and violence against women, including rape, unwanted touching, and verbal abuse, is particularly common in the fields. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report interviewed workers, growers, and others involved in the industry across the country and found the problem was incredibly pervasive. “Almost without exception, they identified sexual violence and harassment as an important concern,” according to the researchers.
In Immokalee, Florida, where conditions among tomato industry workers were particularly severe for decades, CIW has made impressive strides. In 2011, CIW launched the Fair Food Program, and worked to involve a wide range of growers and retail partners, from Whole Foods to Walmart in the years that followed.
The program now covers 30,000 workers in seven states, across three different crops. Essentially, the program secures commitments from major tomato buyers to pay a small premium that goes directly to workers. They agree to buy tomatoes only from growers that have agreed to follow the Fair Food Code of Conduct, which includes provisions like educating workers about their rights and creates mechanisms for complaints about abuse without fair of retaliation.
Gonzalo said that the changes have been felt deeply by workers in the fields, especially women who now feel they can raising concerns about harassment and report abuse. “There was nobody to go to with that information. Now we do have a way to address that,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about my place of work being dangerous for me.”
In February, the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network published an assessment of FFP’s progress in addressing gender-based violence. It found that since 2011, all 29 reported cases of abuse by supervisors that were found to be valid resulted in disciplinary actions against those supervisors, including 11 terminations. (Those were in addition to thousands of reported complaints related to other labor issues.)
“The coalition has made such progress, it’s like the difference between a Dickensian workhouse and a modern Silicon Valley office complex,” said Barry Estabrook, who chronicled tomato field labor abuses and CIW’s work in the years leading up to the implementation of the FFP in his 2011 book Tomatoland. In fact, the changes have been so stark that Estabrook recently returned to Florida to document them, and updated the book to tell the story of how the FFP has nearly eliminated pervasive issues like wage theft, sexual harassment, and lack of access to shade and water.
Estabrook also noted that other labor groups as diverse as construction workers in Texas to garment workers in Bangladesh are using the program as a model for improving working conditions in other industries. “It’s a template that, when you adjust it, can be applied to almost any work situation.”
While 14 major national retailers, fast food companies, and food service providers have signed on to the FFP, Wendy’s has resisted signing on, and instead shifted its purchasing of winter tomatoes to Mexico, citing higher quality as the impetus and also arguing that the premium demanded by the FFP would amount to them “paying another company’s employees.”
“We have no reason to doubt that the CIW’s work has improved conditions on tomato farms in Florida. However, linking this work with the idea that joining their program, and purchasing Florida tomatoes, is the only way to operate ethically is simply not true,” said Heidi Schauer, Wendy’s director of corporate communications in a recent statement. “At Wendy’s, we have long upheld high standards of quality, and a strong commitment to human dignity throughout our business and our supply chain. All of our suppliers are bound to a strict Code of Conduct that requires ethical practices, and certain fresh produce suppliers, including all tomato suppliers, undergo third-party certified human rights assessments.”
The Los Angeles Times conducted an in-depth investigation of the Mexican farms that supply the largest U.S. companies with tomatoes in 2014 and found workers were overwhelmingly trapped in labor camps without access to basic necessities like food and water, their wages withheld for months at a time, and that U.S. companies had done little to enforce the social responsibility guidelines they touted.
“Time’s Up, Wendy’s”
CIW has point-by-point responses to each of Wendy’s arguments. The group also contends that the fast food chain shifted their sourcing specifically to avoid participating in the FFP.
While Wendy’s is just one company, Estabrook emphasized the importance of their participation, since if even one large buyer refuses to sign on the FFP, there could be an incentive for growers in Florida to withdraw.
The march on Thursday night drew an estimated 2,500 people on Park Avenue. Farmworkers from other states, such as Vermont’s Migrant Justice group, were represented, as were many other “ally” organizations including the Workmen’s Circle, the National Organization for Women, and Industrial Workers of the World. Leaders from United Methodist Women told the crowd they brought nine pages of “blessings and support” from their members across the country, and read selections from women in Iowa, New Jersey, and Ohio.
Against a backdrop of giant yellow flags emblazoned with “Justice,” “Libertad,” and “Dignidad,” Lucas Benitez and Julia de la Cruz, CIW leaders, introduced a group of workers’ children, who stepped up to the microphone to lead their own chant.
“Many of their parents have been fasting … and continuing to make the sacrifice to feed their children while fighting for justice so that their children can have a better future,” Benitez said. “If Wendy’s thinks that we’re going to stop here, they need to know we have a future generation ready to continue the struggle.”
All photos © Lisa Held.