For over a decade the small coalition of farmworkers and community activists have taken on the giants of Big Ag and built a new system of labor protection. Now they’re taking the fight to a Goliath in red pigtails.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)—an internationally renowned farmworker group (and leading early labor ally of one former presidential candidate)—is leading a nationwide boycott of Wendy’s, to pressure the fast-food giant to participate in a “worker-led social responsibility” system that links corporate accountability with labor justice from farm to table.
CIW farmworker-member Julia De La Cruz spoke from a recent summit of activists in Florida, where community groups strategized on the nationwide boycott: “Wendy’s…is continuing to profit from the sweat of workers and not acknowledging the work that we do…. They don’t even want a dialogue with us. And what we’re to make them do is take responsibility for the workers in their supply chain.”
Although other brands like Whole Foods and Subway have been pressured to sign on to CIW’s Fair Food program, Wendy’s has issued its own corporate social-responsibility code, presented in a glossy 20-page booklet that workers say is full of empty promises.
Wendy’s states that “Suppliers are expected to fairly compensate and provide wages, benefits and overtime premiums to their employees that comply with applicable laws and regulations.” Notably, the plan does not layout general rules for fair labor conditions beyond the legal minimum, without mandating direct sanctions for suppliers who fail to meet the company’s “expectations.” CIW rejects the softer language, insisting on its own system of regular auditing under a worker-led monitoring program, which ties corporate membership in the program to a system of sanctions for violations.
“What they’ve done instead is create a code of conduct behind which they can stand, that doesn’t really support the human rights of farmworkers,” de la Cruz says. In contrast to CIW’s grassroots initiative, she adds, the Wendy’s plan “basically does not include any worker voice or worker participation.… they created it basically to evade taking responsibility for the conditions of workers in their supply chain instead of joining the Fair Food Program.”
Wendy’s has also sought to circumvent the Fair Food program through the market, by sourcing tomatoes in Mexico, even further distanced from public scrutiny by US regulators or community groups. Various media outlets have confirmed that Wendy’s and other US mega-corporations have sourced tomatoes through Kaliroy, an arm of the Mexican agro-giant Bioparques de Occidente. A recent Los Angeles Times investigation showed Bioparques labor camps to be rife with extreme poverty, violent abuse, substandard housing, child labor and wage theft—issues that brutally echo the same kind of slavery-like labor practices on Florida farms against which CIW’s immigrant workers originally mobilized in its early campaigns.