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‘The stakes are nothing less than life and death’: Why farmworkers are marching against Wendy’s

Depending on the farm, workers who pick produce could be enduring abusive working conditions, like the withholding of wages, debt bondage, and forced labor.

‘The stakes are nothing less than life and death’: Why farmworkers are marching against Wendy’s
[Images: Alliance for Fair Food, Kevin Fleming/Getty Images, iStock/Getty Images Plus]

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

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Depending on the farm, the workers who picked that produce could be enduring abusive working conditions, like the withholding of wages, debt bondage, and forced labor. In some instances, workers are trafficked from other countries and forced to work on farms across the U.S. and Canada. In October 2021, for example, Customs and Border Protection announced an import ban on tomatoes coming from two Mexican tomato farms because of concerns over abuse and forced labor. The following month, the U.S. Department of Justice arrested 24 people involved in trafficking farmworkers from Mexico and Central America to farms in south Georgia.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a human rights organization that was formed by Florida tomato pickers in 1993 and now fights for better conditions for farmworkers, has been bettering work conditions on farms through its Fair Food Program. That program, which won a 2015 Presidential Award for “extraordinary efforts to combat trafficking in persons,” facilitates partnerships among farmworkers, produce farmers, and food retailers, setting certain codes of conduct and regulations, including access to shade, water, and breaks, and monitoring compliance. Those food retailers pledge to buy only from Fair Food Program-approved farms, and also to pay a premium—1 to 4 cents more per pound of tomatoes—which gets passed from growers to farmworkers as a bonus on their paychecks; they also pledge to drop any suppliers that violate Fair Food Program standards.

If you get a burger from McDonald’s, a sandwich from Subway, or a taco from Taco Bell, you can be assured that the tomatoes on top were picked without forced labor or human rights violations; all have partnered with the Fair Food Program. But one notable fast-food chain has not: Wendy’s.

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The Fair Food Program currently benefits thousands of farm workers, mostly in Florida. When it was established there, Wendy’s stopped buying winter tomatoes from Florida, instead choosing to purchase from Mexico, where forced labor and abusive 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 conduct code to which it holds suppliers, and requires third-party reviews on labor practices for suppliers of produce. The company has also pointed to its use of hydroponic greenhouse farms as part of a responsible supply chain. “The idea that joining the Fair Food Program, and purchasing field-grown, commodity tomatoes, is the only way that Wendy’s can demonstrate responsibility in our supply chain is not true,” the spokesperson wrote.

But the effectiveness of such social reviews and audits has been questioned by experts, including within U.S. Customs and Border Protection; others have noted that greenhouse farms aren’t inherently exempt from fostering abusive labor conditions. With Wendy’s competitors like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Yum Brands signed on to the Fair Foods Program, the question has become: Why won’t Wendy’s?

Today, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is leading a 5-mile march in Palm Beach—home to Nelson Peltz, chairman of Wendy’s board and CEO of Trian Partners, the largest institutional shareholder of the fast-food chain—urging Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program. The coalition expects more than 600 people to participate, including human rights activist Kerry Kennedy, the Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski, and others. Ahead of the action, Fast Company communicated with Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a senior staff member of the coalition and one of the march organizers, via email about why the coalition is taking this action now, and what’s at stake for farmworkers across North America.

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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 I’ve been farming since I was 11 years old. When I came to Florida as a farmworker, I picked tomatoes, oranges, and watermelons, depending on the season. I saw firsthand how growers stole farmworkers’ wages, tried to trap us in debt by selling us poorly cooked food before giving us our first paycheck, and provided terrible housing. I learned about CIW because I was living in a trailer with workers who the CIW had helped escape from a forced labor operation. Forced labor has plagued U.S. agriculture for decades, prompting federal prosecutors to dub Flordia “ground zero for modern-day slavery” in the 1990s.

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I joined CIW to try to change things after my friends invited me to go on a two-week, 230-mile march across Florida, from Fort Myers to Orlando. We made a 12-foot-tall papier-mâché replica of the Statue of Liberty—reimagined as a farmworker with a bucket under her arm and a tomato held up 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, D.C.

What is the experience like for farmworkers before a food retailer joins the Fair Food Program, and after?

​​Before the Fair Food Program, farmworkers faced widespread, unchecked abuses ranging from wage theft to sexual assault, egregious safety violations, lack of access to clean water and bathrooms, and, as we have seen all too many times in our history at CIW, forced labor. And since there was no real way to get help without the risk of retaliation, those conditions went largely unchallenged for decades. Unfortunately, this is still the reality for the majority of the country’s farmworkers who are not working on Fair Food Program farms. Because the program is built on enforceable agreements backed by market consequences, workers on Fair Food Program farms have real protections that they can enforce, without fear of retaliation.

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The program’s zero-tolerance policies, backed by the loss of sales to the FFP’s 14 participating buyers (including companies like Whole Foods, Walmart, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Aramark), ensure that the culture of impunity is halted in its tracks.

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

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

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We are taking this action now because there is, once again, a massive wave of modern-day slavery prosecutions in North American agriculture hitting the headlines, and that makes the need for large buyers of produce, like Wendy’s, to commit to the Fair Food Program greater than ever.

At the same time, these very same U.S. law enforcement agencies are telling retailers, in no uncertain terms, that if they want to combat forced labor in their supply chains, they should join the Fair Food Program. An FAQ published by CBP [says] “more investment should be made in worker-driven solutions. Examples of how this can be achieved are the Fair Food Program and Bangladesh Accord.” One month later, the U.S. Department of Labor, which was closely involved in the recent Georgia prosecution, said the FFP “is something every grower and food retailer should be a part of. The program’s success is absolutely undeniable.”

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

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If Wendy’s doesn’t listen, what are the stakes for farmworkers? 

The recent reports of slavery in agricultural supply chains have definitely increased the urgency of farmworkers’ calls for Wendy’s to join its peers in the Fair Food Program. We know that the Fair Food Program is the answer to reducing the risk of human rights abuses like this. So we will never give up hope that they will listen and take the steps to join. The stakes are nothing less than life and death, as we saw in the case in Georgia, so for that reason we can never give up.

There’s an element of shareholder activism here as well. Has that increased pressure on the company?

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We are excited about the shareholder activism piece of this, because we do believe that Wendy’s investors want to see real action here. Last year, 95% of shareholders voted for a resolution calling for transparency into the effectiveness of human rights protections for farmworkers in Wendy’s supply chain. But since then we’ve learned that Wendy’s hasn’t provided all the information shareholders voted to obtain. Major investors, including the New York City comptroller’s office—which oversees one of the nation’s largest pension funds—sent a letter to Wendy’s in March expressing their frustration about Wendy’s non-responsiveness to shareholders, and promising to take this issue into consideration when voting as shareholders at Wendy’s in the future.

As we’ve learned in the Fair Food Program, having words on paper is one thing, but compliance only happens when there are real consequences. We hope that Wendy’s shareholders will hold the board of directors accountable not only for failing to listen to farmworkers and consumers, but now even to the shareholders in their own company. This is one reason we will be marching past JPMorgan and Wells Fargo during the march, because both are Wendy’s shareholders, and we are calling for all shareholders to hold Wendy’s board accountable for its failure to respond adequately to shareholders on this issue.

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