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.”