United States (OpenDemocracy) – From 11 to 15 March, Florida farmworkers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and their allies will hold a five-day Freedom Fast outside the Manhattan office of Nelson Peltz, Wendy’s largest shareholder and chair of its board of directors. They will demand that Wendy’s joins other fast food chains in supporting the Fair Food Program, a CIW initiative that has substantially improved the conditions of many women farmworkers by directly confronting the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) in the fields. The fast will culminate with a massive Time’s Up Wendy’s March on 15 March to further highlight the ongoing presence of GBV in the US agricultural sector.
Women working in low-wage sectors and women of color are especially vulnerable to GBV in the world of work. The male-dominated agricultural sector in the United States – where severe violations such as sexual violence, abuse, and harassment are endemic – is among the most salient examples. According to recent report by the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network, over 80% of women farmworkers experience sexual abuse and harassment, with “assault and the most extreme forms of harassment [being] so common that many women consider it unavoidable”.
That has, ever so slowly, started to change. The women farmworkers of Immokalee had their version of the #MeToo moment a while ago, and it resulted in a powerful solution for addressing GBV in the fields: the Fair Food Program. First piloted in 2011, the Fair Food Program has pioneered a unique model of farm governance that seeks to ensure that working conditions for farmworkers remain humane and free of sexual and gender-based abuse. The Program consists of wage increases supported by a price premium paid by corporate purchasers of Florida tomatoes, and a human-rights-based Code of Conduct. Ongoing in-depth farm audits – which typically include interviews with over half a company’s workforce – are conducted to ensure compliance with the Program.
Putting workers ‘at the head of the table’
Hailed as “the best workplace-monitoring program” in the US by the New York Times, the Fair Food Program flips traditional corporate monitoring initiatives – where the firm maintains control of the process – on their head and allows workers to take the lead in protecting themselves. It is a unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies, and constitutes a leading example of worker-driven social responsibility. As the CIW describes it, under the Fair Food Program, ”workers are not just at the table, they are at the head of the table”.
The Fair Food Program has had an immensely positive effect for farmworkers both inside and outside the Immokalee region of southern Florida, and uptake has been especially strong among American tomato farmers on the Eastern seaboard. “Before [the program]”, says Lupe Gonzalo, a senior staff member at CIW and former migrant farmworker, “we were resigned to the thought that there was no efficient solution to address abuse in the workplace”. But since the program’s inception, over 1800 worker complaints have been resolved and over $25 million have been paid in fair food premiums to farm payrolls. And, according to the CIW, sexual harassment and assault have been virtually eliminated on participating farms.
Fleeing from responsibility
Fourteen of the world’s major food retailers, including McDonald’s and Taco Bell, have by now agreed to end purchases from growers who do not respect the program’s code of conduct. Wendy’s, however, continues withhold its support, and in a recent statement argued they do not believe that “joining the Fair Food Program is the only way to act responsibly”.
CIW began an official boycott of Wendy’s in 2013. Two years later it named the the world’s third largest fast food hamburger chain a “fugitive from farmworker justice” in response to the company’s 2015 decision to relocate its tomato sourcing operations to Mexico rather than to confront GBV at home. Since then, the CIW has sought new ways to pile on the pressure, with the Freedom Fast this month being only the latest example.
“As long as the conditions in Mexico don’t change, corporations shouldn’t do business there”, Gonzalo said. “When companies are willing to overlook these abuses, the industry has no incentive to change”. This is the sentiment animating the Freedom Fast and Time’s Up Wendy’s March next week. This direct action is happening at a time where calls for greater accountability and transparency for workers in supply chains are on the rise, and not just in the agricultural industry.
The case for letting the workers lead
Worker-driven social responsibility stands in stark contrast to the more traditional social responsibility programs lead by corporations. These voluntary initiatives have repeatedly proven to be ineffective at best, and have been been routinely criticised for doing more to protect the reputations of corporations than to produce meaningful changes for workers.
This is largely because these voluntary schemes fail to address the root causes of labour abuse – something that is central to the Fair Food Program. It is based on the premise that GBV and other labour abuses don’t happen in isolation; rather, they occur at the intersection of systemic discrimination; governance gaps surrounding labour (including the under-enforcement of labour standards and weak legislative instruments); and a general reluctance to challenge the private sector and powerful corporations.
Farmworkers pioneered the Fair Food Program in one of the harshest working environments in the US to provide a powerful alternative to the status quo – one that actually challenges the economic structures that make farmworkers vulnerable to labour abuses and GBV in the first place. Fortunately, this model is not limited to the tomato industry; other success stories include the garment sector in Bangladesh with the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, as well as the Milk with Dignity program in Vermont.
With the Freedom Fast and the Time’s Up Wendy’s March, the farmworkers from Immokalee are sending a strong message to corporate leaders who place profit above their lives and safety.
Want to join the movement? You can register for the Freedom Fast and/or the Time’s Up Wendy’s March here.