In March 2016, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) called for a consumer boycott of Wendy’s until it joins the Fair Food Program. After having engaged Wendy’s with the CIW for ten years, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board voted denominational support for the boycott at its April meeting. In this article, Gerardo Reyes Chavez, farmworker and leader of the CIW, discusses the critical role of Presbyterians in continuing to advance human rights for the people harvesting produce in our nation and in supply chains worldwide, with special reference to the overture before the 222nd General Assembly on Ending Slavery in Supply Chains.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers received with joy, but without surprise, the news that the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board voted the church’s support for the Boycott of Wendy’s. I say without surprise because for as long as I can remember – indeed from the very inception of the CIW back in the early 1990s – the PC(USA) has been walking with us in all that we do, bringing the church’s power and hope to bear. The church standing with us, spreading the word about the boycott high and low and advocating strongly, is essential if we are to stop Wendy’s from profiting off of worker exploitation and to strengthen the human rights advances we have secured through the Fair Food Program.
Market consequence is what has made the industry change so completely. And it is consumers, including tens of thousands of Presbyterians, who have pressured those corporations to require their suppliers to change.
We as workers have always understood that in order for profound and lasting change to take place, public perception must shift. The public must understand that these are not just farmworkers’ issues; they relate to every single one of us as, whether as workers, producers, consumers, corporations, or people of faith because of our sacred connections.
The PC(USA) has long understood that in order to affect change for workers in the fields, concrete action must be taken. The church has become an inspiring example for other denominations to do the same.
The Human Rights Gains We Have Won Together
Because of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) partnership with the PC(USA) and other people of faith and conscience, we have been able to weave human rights into the very fabric of the Florida tomato industry – and beyond. Since 2002, the church has helped us achieve Fair Food Agreements with 14 fast-food, supermarket, and food service corporations. These include some of the largest corporations in the world, such as Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Yum! Brands (Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut), and most recently, Ahold (parent corporation to supermarkets Stop & Shop, Giant, Martin’s, and Peapod).
These legally binding agreements form the backbone of the Fair Food Program. Corporations participating in the Program agree to pay a penny-per-pound premium that is passed through growers to increase the wages of farmworkers; additionally, they agree to purchase only from growers who uphold human rights standards and to suspend purchasing from any growers who are found to be out of compliance. That market consequence is what has made the industry change so completely. And it is consumers, including tens of thousands of Presbyterians, who have pressured those corporations to require their suppliers to change.
The FPP ensures for more than 100,000 workers the right to lodge a complaint without retaliation and the right to work free of sexual harassment and violence. The Program is enforced by the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC), a third-party monitoring organization, and by workers themselves, who receive worker-to-worker education on how to recognize and report violations.
In the span of five years, the Program has completely transformed the industry. The FFSC’s annual report shows unparalleled results. As one worker said to a FFSC monitor, “I have been in the fields all my life. I have seen boys become men in the tomato fields. And now I also see that things are better, now we are not treated like dogs – I am grateful to people like you. You are welcome here.” Another said, “Our dignity is being restored through this program.”
As long as I can remember – indeed from the very inception of the CIW back in the early 1990s – the PC(USA) has been walking with us in all that we do, bringing the church’s power and hope to bear.
Things that we dreamed of when the CIW was only a local Immokalee organization 20 years ago are coming true – along things that we never could have imagined. Because of the agreement with Walmart, protections are now being extended to workers in six states north of Florida. For the first time, the Fair Food Program is expanding into Florida strawberries and peppers.
However, when men and women go to work outside of the Fair Food Program, they face the same abuses we once faced. Workers have families, and in order to support them, the majority of farmworkers have their dignity stripped from them every day. Poverty wages put farmworkers in a position of desperation and fear. Factors beyond their control – getting sick, a freeze, etc. – can put them in a position where they are unable to feed their families. They are subject to many abuses, including sexual assault, wage theft, violence, and in extreme cases, forced labor.
And those fruits and vegetables, harvested by workers who are exploited and sometimes even enslaved, are still making it to the table of every person in this country. When people gather to give thanks for the food on the table, there is something missing from that prayer: the assurance that farmworkers are not being brutalized while producing the food. We still have much work to do.
We need to get more corporations into the Fair Food Program. We need to bring Wendy’s, Kroger, and Publix into the Program, even as we extend the Program’s reach to other states and crops.
Why Boycott Wendy’s?
And so we come to Wendy’s. For over ten years, we have invited Wendy’s to the table to talk about eliminating abuses in its supply chain. Over the years, they have witnessed the suffering of farmworkers, but also everything that has been changing in the industry from which they source their tomatoes due to the Fair Food Program.
Instead of supporting that change, Wendy’s turned its back on its own Florida tomato suppliers who were implementing these changes and moved its purchases to Mexico, where there are well-documented abuses of farmworkers, including slavery – in one case, involving close to 300 workers (See “Trump’s Tomatoes” and this LA Times article from 2014). This is the kind of business that Wendy’s has chosen to support because of their thirst for cheaper produce and their inability to embrace the responsibility they have to the workers that they have taken advantage of for decades in Florida. That’s why we’ve called for a consumer boycott of Wendy’s.
Wendy’s Code of Conduct says that they expect their suppliers to abide by all applicable laws, but this means nothing if there’s no enforcement and if workers are unable to voice complaints about the conditions they face.
As a distraction, Wendy’s has been talking a lot about their new Supplier Code of Conduct, which purports to address to their supply chain practices. In reality, Wendy’s Code of Conduct is nothing more than a generic code of conduct that corporations embrace precisely to escape their responsibility. It says that they expect their suppliers to abide by all applicable laws, but this means nothing if there’s no enforcement and if workers are unable to voice complaints about the conditions they face. This Code of Conduct is a direct insult to the dignity of the workers who are seeking justice in the fields – and to the intelligence of people of conscience.
It is particularly insulting that Wendy’s came out with this Code of Conduct having ended their business relationships with U.S. tomato growers participating in the Fair Food Program. How can a corporation claim to have an effective Code of Conduct while at the same time punishing suppliers for respecting human rights, abandoning workers, and choosing to exploit workers in a worse way somewhere else? Such a move is simply outrageous.
The PC(USA) was the first faith body to support the Wendy’s boycott. Since then, many other organizations of faith and conscience have endorsed.
We Have Journeyed Hand-in-Hand Together to Change What Many Thought Was Impossible
With the support of the PC(USA), the struggle of a relatively unknown organization that started in a forgotten part of Florida gained the attention of the rest of the nation. A space was created where farmworkers and consumers could talk about how we would bring about change together. It was essential to have support both at the congregational level and at the level of institutional endorsement from the PC(USA). As individuals and congregations joined us in marches, hosted CIW on “truth tours” across the country, and spread the word about our campaigns, national Presbyterian leadership used the power of the church’s voice and position in society to make a difference. Our partnership with the PC(USA) inspired other major institutions in the nation to support and to convene talks between CIW and Yum! Brands, leading to the first Fair Food Agreement in 2005.
The way the church supported us mattered. Presbyterians and farmworkers connected on a human level. The church never hesitated in recognizing our humanity as individuals and as a community in this process. A funny story illustrates this: I remember when Clifton Kirkpatrick came first to Immokalee in 2002 and nobody in Immokalee could pronounce his name! It just didn’t translate in Spanish. Everyone was wondering what to do, and in that moment he just said, “I’m Clifton Kirkpatrick but you can call me ‘El Gringo Grande’!” It was a really beautiful moment of genuine connection. Cliff reminded us he was just a fellow human being, even as he played an incredibly important role of providing institutional support – engaging with corporate executives and making critical public statements. The same has been true of other PC(USA) leaders, whether at the congregational or national setting. We have always recognized each other’s humanity, for in the end we are just people, striving for the same goals of human rights and well-being. And we will get there – together.
The Future: Extending the Successful Model to Supply Chains Worldwide
The struggle that started in Immokalee and the victories farmworkers have won do not belong just to the workers of Florida and other states where the Program is being implemented. Those victories have sparked hoped for workers in other realities – in the U.S. dairy industry as Migrant Justice works to implement the FFP principles, in the garment factories of Bangladesh as elements of the FFP have been incorporated into the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, and beyond.
There is an overture before the 222nd General Assembly seeking to end slavery in supply chains. It is an important resolution that would give the church the opportunity to use what it has learned through its support of the Fair Food Program to push forward this model of Worker-Driven Social Responsibility (WSR) with the church’s vendors and with companies in which the church invests.
It is crucial to remember that when a corporation has a code of conduct that says it abhors slavery or expects its suppliers to follow applicable laws, that code is bankrupt unless it is legally binding upon the company and contains rigorous enforcement mechanisms and swift and severe market consequences.
The way the PC(USA) has supported us matters. The church has never hesitated in recognizing our humanity as individuals and as a community in this process.
Think of Wendy’s Code and its toothless expectations that I discussed earlier. Shameful working conditions can persist even where there are codes of conduct or third party certification programs, because too often these programs lack the enforcement and consequences that have brought about such dramatic change and the assurance of farmworker rights in the Fair Food Program. That is one of the reasons the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights has underscored that the model developed by the CIW in the Fair Food Program is the most promising model for advancing human rights swiftly and surely in supply chains. This is to say that the PC(USA) can use its experience working with us to advance this successful model in other markets and hold corporations rightly accountable.
We need to transform the way in which business is done to end preventable abuses that men, women, and children suffer daily, whether in agriculture or mines, factories or fisheries. The trust and partnership the PC(USA) has built with us and its witness to corporate executives and the public at large place the church in a pivotal position of unique and significant impact. It is with deep love and appreciation for all you have done and all we have yet to do that I say, “Thank you, PC(USA)!” and ¡Adelante!,” dear friends.
AUTHOR BIO: Gerardo Reyes Chavez is a staff member and leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a human rights organization based in Immokalee, Florida comprised of over 5,000 farmworker members. Mr. Reyes is a farmworker himself and has worked in the fields since age 11, picking oranges, tomatoes, blueberries and watermelon.
The CIW’s Fair Food Program (FFP) guarantees rights never before seen for farmworkers, such as rights to shade and rest breaks from their grueling work, and zero tolerance for sexual harassment and modern slavery. The FFP was called “one of the great human rights success stories of our day” in The Washington Post, “the best workplace monitoring program in the US” on the front page of The New York Times.