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.