These Farmworkers Know How to End Sexual Harassment in the Fields. Will Wendy’s Listen?

These Farmworkers Know How to End Sexual Harassment in the Fields. Will Wendy’s Listen?

These Farmworkers Know How to End Sexual Harassment in the Fields. Will Wendy’s Listen?

Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are fasting to pressure Wendy’s to join a breakthrough fair-food program that’s raised wages and made workplace harassment obsolete.


What if you were running a major fast-food chain that had to get its tomatoes from somewhere, and you came across a program that had ended sexual harassment and violence among 90 percent of Florida-based tomato growers? What if participating in this program cost you only one penny per pound of tomatoes you bought? And what if 60 percent of your competitors, including McDonald’s, Chipotle Grill, Subway, Taco Bell, and Burger King, had long since joined up? Why would you avoid such a program, even going so far as to change your source for tomatoes from Florida, where this innovation was born, to Mexico, where human-rights abuses in agriculture abound?

That’s what the members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) are asking Nelson Peltz, the chair of Wendy’s board of directors. Demanding an answer, these farmworkers, mostly but not exclusively women, are conducting a group fast this week on the sidewalk outside Peltz’s office in New York. They want Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program (FFP), a breakthrough solution that has made work safer and fairer for thousands of the farmworkers who make it possible for Americans to eat fresh vegetables. The farmworkers have declared #TimesUpWendy’s, confident that the CIW model, which places sexual abuse squarely in the context of all labor rights and has a host of legally binding accountability mechanisms, is the key to ending sexual violence not just in their own but in all industries.

The fast began Sunday with a small rally in front of 280 Park Avenue, a low-pressure dress rehearsal for the rest of the week, when foot traffic would grow exponentially as the city’s professionals went to work. About 40 people, most wearing sky blue beanies bearing the CIW logo and nearly a quarter of them children, sat in camp chairs or stood facing the campaign’s banner and speakers. A line of adults moved slowly across the sidewalk as each received a yellow armband from the women who had traveled from Florida to stop eating for a week. Speaker Antonia Martinez said, “Although it is a sacrifice, it is nothing compared to the thousands of farmworkers whose voices aren’t heard, whose kids go to bed hungry.” Musicians set an upbeat tone, and medical professionals arrived to check on the fasters as they prepared for an early evening vigil in front of Wendy’s in Union Square.

The CIW has been working for 25 years to improve conditions in Florida’s fields. It was founded in the 1990s, first organizing work stoppages and other actions to force growers to the table. But a crucial component of its approach has been the awareness that buyers, not growers, held the real power and money in the industry. In 2001, the coalition initiated a campaign to force Taco Bell to take responsibility for human-rights abuses in the supply chain, to add a penny to the price of each pound of tomatoes, and to buy only from growers who pledged to pass that penny on to workers. Four years later, it won, proving the power of a model it has used ever since.

The coalition has adopted a two-pronged strategy—organize a powerful base of educated workers, and remove a grower’s financial incentive to cheat them by driving buyers away when they do. Over time, the CIW has expanded this model into the Fair Food Program, which was launched in 2011 after a two-year pilot based on earlier agreements with growers and buyers. In farm work overall, 75 percent of women laborers report sexual abuse, but since the launch of the Fair Food Program, sexual harassment and assault of farmworker women has become virtually obsolete at participating farms. The FFP has also ended other abuses—wage theft has disappeared, and workers no longer experience modern-day slavery.

The FFP has six components: worker-to-worker education, the Code of Conduct, the premium-bonus scheme to improve compensation, the complaint line, and audits of farm conditions and immediate consequences for violating the standards. The coalition convinces buyers to add the Code of Conduct, which essentially repeats existing labor laws, as a standard for choosing suppliers. The particular solutions are designed for a seasonal industry, to support growers in doing the right thing and to provide a path to redemption when they don’t. The system maximizes the monitoring power of the farmworkers themselves with a robust but simple reporting mechanism and by making the agreement legally binding.

The specifics of each component make this genius package of solutions functional. The premium, for example, is a creative way of lifting workers’ quality of life without further stressing the growers whose own earnings are often meager. Essentially, partners agree to extra to the price of the unit, say 1 cent more per pound of tomatoes. That money goes to the workers in the form of a bonus in every paycheck. The coalition and the partners negotiate that addition each year. Since the program started, $15 million in bonuses have moved from buyers to workers, alleviating at least a little of the intense poverty that otherwise marks farmwork.

Worker education begins at the point of hire with an in-person training, run by the CIW and with the growers present. The complaint line is operated 24 hours by a human being who is also an expert in farm-labor conditions and legal compliance. When a supervisor violates the Code of Conduct, not only might they be turned over to the law, but the grower will be suspended from the program and not allowed to sell to partner buyers.

Ideally, unions would be doing this work through collective-bargaining agreements. But farmworkers have faced intense barriers to unionization since the end of slavery. Farmworkers and domestic workers were left out of the National Labor Relations Act in the 1930s, blocking them from accessing benefits like overtime pay. Although farmworkers legally can unionize (albeit without the protections of the NLRA), the realities of a highly mobile, seasonal workforce make it challenging. Unsurprisingly, then, there are very few farmworker unions. The United Farm Workers and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) have won collective-bargaining agreements after long consumer boycott campaigns. But the UFW’s contracts give growers increasing flexibility, and the North Carolina Farm Act threatens FLOC’s survival in North Carolina, where they have some 10,000 members (about 10 percent of the state’s farmworker workforce) by making it illegal to collect dues automatically from members’ paychecks. Dues comprise 50–60 percent of FLOC’s annual budget.

As unions face the possibility of a sector-wide gutting of their budgets through the Janus Supreme Court case, community-based workers organizations like Pineros y Campesinos Unidos de Noroeste in Oregon and the Coalition in Florida constitute important alternatives. “FFPs have offered a whole new model of labor organizing and workers rights,” says Susan Marquis, Dean and Distinguished Chair of Policy Analysis at the Pardee Rand Graduate School and the author of I Am Not a Tractor!: How Florida Farmworkers Took On the Fast Food Giants and Won. “They’re taking an industry-level approach as opposed to a workplace-oriented approach, and they’re organizing the community whether or not one is a formal member of the coalition or working at an FFP farm.”

Wendy’s used to buy from Florida growers, even after the Tomato Growers Exchange signed a historic industry-wide agreement with FFP in 2010, but never actually signed on as a company. They got all the benefits that FFP-compliant growers do without paying any of the costs, including the Premium. As the coalition and its allies started to pressure Wendy’s in 2014 and ’15, the company made the mystifying decision to move its supply contracts to Mexico rather than signing on to the FFP. Not only does the FFP not exist in Mexico, but human-rights organizations have documented extreme violence, including rampant sexual assault.

Nely Rodriguez, a former farmworker who now organizes with the CIW, said that the members have taken heart from the #metoo and #TimesUp momentum. After seven years of intensive worker education on sexual harassment, addressing not only harmful employer behavior but also that of other workers, Rodriguez is seeing more male farmworkers support this part of the platform. She says that’s partly because their own humanity is reinforced at work and partly because of the broader public attention to sexual abuse issues. “In years past the working environment that we were in was very uncomfortable because it was majority men and fewer of us women,” said Rodriguez. “Now we see the men are supporting us as women and I think that’s also because they see the effect [the FFP] is having on them. They say we’re being treated like the workers that we are, like human beings and not as tools or machines.”

In the 2015 FFP Annual Report, an auditor from the Fair Food Council, the independent entity that monitors participating farms, told the story of a male worker who observed that women were often fired if they complain about sexual harassment. This worker noticed the difference on FFP-participating farms, and he too was relieved not to work under conditions that weaken women’s power in the fields. CIW member Oscar Otzoy, one of the men who came up from Florida, said that was excited to work alongside women to change the conditions he’s experienced in the decade he worked in the fields. “My personal motivation for working alongside women in the fields to end sexual violence…really comes from having seen these things happen around me and feeling like I needed to do something myself to put an end to them,” he said. “Also just recognizing that as men who live in this society who all have mothers or who were born of women, we really have an important role to play.”

Having gained control of the tomato industry all the way up and down the East Coast, the coalition is looking to expand its reach by moving into strawberry fields and taking the FFP to growers in Texas. Rodriguez also wants to see the model spread to other industries. The CIW has already supported textile and dairy workers, and its strategy could apply to entertainment too. “At the base of the FFP is education and women knowing their rights,” she said. “Once you know your rights and also there’s a consequence for this kind of behavior, that’s when real change comes.”

In Vermont, the community-based workers organization Migrant Justice has adapted the model to the state’s dairy industry in the Milk with Dignity program, the first full translation to a differently structured industry. There, farms are much smaller, and milk goes from farmer to cooperative to retailer, so some of the solutions are different. For example, a portion of the premium bonus goes to farmers as well as farmworkers. Still, these mechanisms came from the input of workers as well as farmers, as the principles of real worker engagement and true market consequences are fully present. Migrant Justice recently signed its first agreement with Ben and Jerry’s.

There are numerous lessons to be learned from the FFP. Two key components top Marquis’s list: standards developed by worker themselves, and a swift process when complaints come in. “They developed a ground breaking sexual-harassment education program,” she said. “They know where this kind of harassment happens, in packing houses late at night. In the rows when people are moving quickly and no one has time to deal.” Once the standards are set and workers are educated, “then you’ve got 30,000 farmworkers monitoring every row for problems. If you have someone create standards who isn’t a worker, they’re not going to think of the right things.”

When complaints come in, they are resolved quickly and with immediate sanctions, if necessary. An investigation usually takes place within days, and the resolution is made public. If a grower is suspended, they receive a correction plan, and they can be reinstated as soon as the plan is executed. A long process might take up to two weeks. Because workers can see their complaints dealt with immediately and without retaliation, their motivation to organize and monitor grows.

The conditions that enable sexual harassment exist in every industry. The key is to recognize the situations in which abuse most often occurs and change those conditions. “Janitors working in isolation late at night are vulnerable to abuse by supervisors. In Hollywood, you could no longer be allowed to work for a particular production company if you’ve made a complaint. In the restaurant industry, a lot can happen after hours,” said Marquis.

The CIW’s model does have vulnerabilities. The coalition is aware of the potential for conflicts of interest; to prevent this, none of its operations, education, or monitoring is funded by buyers or growers. Instead, support for those activities comes entirely from foundation funding. That is robust now, but private philanthropic support can disappear with little notice as foundations spend down or shift priorities.

For now, though, this powerful organization is focused on bringing Wendy’s back into the fold. Consumers are responding—the petition to get Wendy’s to sign on to the FFP now has more than 101,000 signatures. The fast will culminate in a march on Thursday, March 15, with celebrity allies like soccer star Abby Wambach and writer Glennon Doyle. At a time when public attention to sexual-violence issues are at a rare high point, joining a program that has ended sexual harassment and other abuses is a no-brainer.

History suggests that Wendy’s will eventually cave as the pressure grows. Today’s consumers are too savvy to let retailers get away with the old excuse that what happens in the supply chain isn’t their fault. In an age of increasing political polarization, a program built on partnership as well as accountability among all the players that put food on our tables has the potential to change everything, one vegetable at a time. Wendy’s wouldn’t be doing anyone a favor in protecting themselves from inevitable abuse scandals. As member Julia de la Cruz said on Park Avenue, “We do not want charity. We just want dignity and respect.” Turns out, dignity and respect are good for business too.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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