In 2014, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that one of Mexico’s biggest tomato growers—Bioparques de Occidente in the state of Jalisco—held workers captive in bedbug- and scorpion-infested compounds. The pickers went hungry and were forced to sleep head to toe on concrete floors. With bosses patrolling the grounds in all-terrain vehicles, those who tried to escape were often beaten. When Walmart learned of human-trafficking charges connected to Bioparques, the US retailer stopped buying its tomatoes.
But in 2015, Wendy’s did the opposite: It ceased purchasing from Florida, where labor conditions had improved, and began acquiring all its winter tomatoes from Mexico, including from Bioparques.
Over the years, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and Yum! Brands (owner of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut) have all joined the Fair Food Program—an agreement between farmers, farmworkers, and retailers that has increased wages for pickers and helped ensure humane conditions in the fields. Among the major fast-food companies, Wendy’s is alone in its refusal. On June 5, pickers and labor activists from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and four other labor organizations plan to protest this outside of Wendy’s headquarters in Dublin, Ohio, during the company’s annual shareholder meeting.
“We will be going into the meeting and addressing Wendy’s leadership directly about the fact that they haven’t signed on to the Fair Food Program,” said Patricia Cipolliti, national co-coordinator at the Alliance for Fair Food, one of the groups organizing the protest. “We are asking them to look us in the eye and tell us why it is they’re taking so long to join the Fair Food Program.”
The Fair Food Program, which started in Florida as a Coalition of Immokalee Workers initiative, requires retailers to buy from growers that follow a code of conduct designed to protect workers’ rights and wages, prohibit assault and sexual harassment, and provide a system to file complaints without fear of employer retaliation.
From all accounts, it’s been remarkably successful. In the 1990s, farm-industry workers in Immokalee, Florida, often toiled in conditions of near-slavery; sexual harassment was commonplace; and workers in Immokalee and other farm locations were paid substantially lower than the federal minimum wage. In a May 31 letter to the CEO and board of directors, a group of Wendy’s investors wrote about the abuses that were common before the Fair Food Program: “Farm workers had been subject to decades of physical abuse, pistol whippings, involuntary confinement, debt bondage, and starvation wages. Crew leaders routinely groped women and demanded sex in exchange for steady work.”
Oscar Otzoy, a farmworker who works as an educator for Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said the program has “boosted wages and helped people live better lives,” adding, “One of the most significant impacts is the freedom workers now have to speak out in the workplace, to report violations of their rights or about things that make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, like if there isn’t shade on the farm, or water and nearby bathrooms available.”
Since the the coalition was founded in 1993 in Immokalee, the organization has also assisted in the prosecution of several farms that relied on forced labor, liberating more than 1,200 people from bondage.
Right now about 35,000 workers in eight states are employed at farms participating in the Fair Food Program. The Fair Food Standards Council verifies that growers are adhering to the code through frequent audits and interviews with at least 50 percent of workers at farm locations. Violators of the code of conduct are suspended from the program, and buyers who have signed up are barred from purchasing their products until the suspension is complete. The program also charges companies an additional 1 cent per pound of tomatoes—with the money funding a bonus for pickers. So far an additional $26 million has been paid to pickers in “Fair Food Premiums.”
Fourteen large corporations—from the fast-food companies to grocers like Walmart, Whole Foods, and Fresh Market—have made this binding commitment. As a result, virtually all the tomato growers in Florida have agreed to follow Immokalee Workers’ code of conduct.
But instead of following their competition, Wendy’s stopped sourcing tomatoes from Florida altogether. Wendy’s did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story. But the company has told reporters in the past this decision was due to the higher quality of Mexico’s tomatoes. In addition, Liliana Esposito, Wendy’s chief communications officer, singled out the additional penny per pound that Wendy’s would pay toward farmworkers, writing in 2016, “We don’t believe we should pay another company’s employees—just as we do not pay factory workers, truck drivers or maintenance personnel that work for our other suppliers.” Esposito also noted that Wendy’s own code of conduct required suppliers “to adhere to high standards for integrity.”
Organizers of this week’s protest call the Wendy’s supplier code of conduct a “sham,” and the Immokalee Workers argue that Wendy’s code falls far short of the worker-driven Fair Food Program. “Wendy’s responses more than anything evade the responsibility they have to protect the rights of workers in their supply chain,” said Nely Rodriguez, a former farmworker who works for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Rodriguez emphasized the work that her organization has done to prevent sexual violence on the farms: “Wendy’s has responded without having an understanding of the work the CIW has done for a long time to address sexual violence, and that the CIW has developed a program to eradicate these abuses in the agriculture industry.”
She also added that since the Fair Food Program was launched, more than 2,000 complaints have been resolved.
To encourage Wendy’s to sign on, college students at Ohio State University, the University of Florida, Vanderbilt, and other universities have pressured their schools to eliminate contracts with Wendy’s through marches, protests, and hunger strikes. In 2015, the Fair Food Program and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers launched a nationwide boycott of Wendy’s. And most recently, over 70 farmworkers and their allies conducted a five-day hunger strike in March 2018 outside the New York City–based office of Wendy’s chairman, Nelson Peltz.
This week, Rodriguez and other farmworkers from Immokalee are making the trip to Wendy’s headquarters. Rodriguez said her goal is “to be present and make our campaign known, and to bring our message to Wendy’s on behalf of the women in our community who work in the fields to let them know just because they are women working in the fields doesn’t mean they also don’t deserve respect and the right to these worker protections.”