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Activists Boycott Wendy's Over Treatment Of Women Tomato Pickers In Mexico

by Erin Gifford
January 9th, 2018

Iryna Yafimchyk for Working Families. Used under Creative Commons license.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) plans to hold a “freedom fast” outside the offices of Nelson Peltz, board chair of Wendy’s fast food restaurants from March 15-18. The protest will highlight ongoing human rights abuses faced by the agricultural workers in Mexico who pick tomatoes for the chain.

Wendy’s, which is based in Ohio, claims to be the third largest hamburger chain in the world, boasting more than 6,500 locations internationally.

For decades, growers that supply tomatoes to fast food chains and restaurants have paid pickers in Florida rock-bottom wages for back breaking work. Often, they worked for minimum wage or less, without the overtime pay and breaks mandated by law. Farmworker women are at a high risk for sexual assault from bosses and co-workers in the fields and packing houses.

In 2005, this began to change after CIW won a 12 year battle to convince Yum Brands (which owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell) to pay pickers an extra penny a pound in wages, which sounds incremental but resulted in $60-$80 weekly increase in wages per worker. In 2011, CIW launched the Fair Food Program to guarantee fair wages, humane working conditions, and allow farmworkers to monitor and report on their own situations. Participating companies must consent to third party U.S. audits to ensure compliance. In addition, workers have access to a grievance system, including a 24-hour complaint hotline to report abuses like sexual violence and harassment. 90 percent of tomato farms in Florida now participate in this program.

Over the last six years, Burger King, Chipotle, McDonald’s, and Subway, have all agreed to join the Fair Food Program. By contrast, Wendy's has taken a completely different approach. By February 2015, the company outsourced its tomato purchases to Mexico. The company also issued a "Supplier Code of Conduct" which requires suppliers to meet Wendy’s “expectation” that they pay a living wage and provide humane working conditions, without mentioning any kind of sanctions for non-compliance.

Then a 2014 expose by Richard Maros in the Los Angeles Times alleged that Bioparques de Occidente, a company based in Jalisco, Mexico, that supplies tomatoes to Wendy's, provides “sub-human” working conditions to its workers.

CIW launched a boycott of the company on March 3, 2016. Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, a CIW member and farm worker from Mexico who now lives and works in the U.S., says that Wendy’s intentionally circumvented the Fair Food Program: “They have been taking advantage of our community for years and years, and when the community finally created a working solution to the labor abuse in the fields, they go to exploit workers somewhere else.”

And Julia de la Cruz, another CIW member and U.S. farm worker who grew up in Mexico, says that Wendy’s hides behind the code of conduct, which “...doesn’t really support the human rights of farmworkers,” and allows the company to “...evade taking responsibility for the conditions of workers in their supply chain”.  

“Walking away from the most effective human-rights program in the food industry into an industry where human-rights violations are endemic and unchecked is not only indefensible but immoral,” Greg Asbed, the co-founder of CIW told Harpers Magazine.

The CIW women’s group followed up with a letter to Wendy’s CEO and board chairman in October 2017 noting that Wendy's supplier code does not address the fact that women receive fewer protections in Mexico’s agricultural industry than the U.S.

“Day in and day out, four out of five farmworker women are at least subjected to vulgar comments and jokes by crew leaders and fellow workers, and all too frequently find themselves pulled to the edge of the field by a crew leader demanding sex in exchange for necessary work,” the letter continues, “How many of Wendy’s tomatoes are now picked by women who have been sexually assaulted by their bosses in the fields? ”

Wendy's management has not responded to the women's group letter. But the company has publicly denounced CIW.

"We are quite happy with the quality and taste of the tomatoes we are sourcing from Mexico," Liliana M. Esposito, Wendy’s chief communications officer, said in an online statement. “So why does CIW have a problem with Wendy’s? Because we buy a lot of tomatoes for which they don’t receive any money. The Fair Food program primarily operates in Florida and Wendy’s does not currently purchase tomatoes in Florida...and that’s at the heart of these protests.”

In fact, the penny per pound premium paid by those participating in the Fair Food Program goes directly to the paychecks of farmworkers, not to the CIW.

Esposito also defended the Wendy's system. “We have a comprehensive Supplier Code of Conduct which requires our suppliers – for tomatoes and everything else we buy – to adhere to high standards for integrity and business practices,” she added. “Every Wendy’s supplier must go through a rigorous certification process, voluntarily participating in a whole host of auditing processes.”

Labor activists say that although the CIW Fair Food Program has improved wages and working conditions for some U.S. farmworkers, it will need to go further to tackle the global struggle against sexual violence and exploitation of low wage workers, particularly women. “The Fair Food Program only exists in the U.S. and there is currently no equivalent for produce coming from Mexico,” writes Eric Gottwald of the International Labor Rights Forum.

In light of the #MeToo movement by U.S. women to expose sexual violence and harassment in workplaces and hold perpetrators accountable, CIW’s efforts to highlight the plight of farmworker women is a valuable yet lonely voice. All too often, the unprecedented levels of sexual violence and harassment that low wage women of color face has historically escaped public notice, according to Sarah Lazare, a writer for In These Times.

She uses the example of Lupe Gonzalo, a farmworker woman and one of the leaders of CIW, whose work in Immokalee, she notes is "worlds apart from the Hollywood celebrities whose #MeToo testimony is exposing widespread sexual violence and toppling powerful men." "It is women like her ... who bear the brunt of workplace sexual assault—and who offer lessons in how to band together to defeat it,” she writes.