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Farmworkers Push Wendy’s, Kroger and Publix to Take Stance Against Forced Labor

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is pushing the companies to join the Fair Food Program, which deters forced labor.

Dozens of farm workers with Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), students, and community leaders from around the country concluded a five-day Freedom Fast in front of the hedge fund offices of Nelson Peltz, the Board Chairman and largest shareholder of the fast food giant Wendy's on March 15, 2018, in New York City.

There are few human rights achievements that are so universally celebrated today as the farmworker-led Fair Food Program, a partnership between agricultural growers, sellers and workers with a proven record of ensuring an “ethical supply chain” from the farms where products are harvested, to the grocery stores where they’re sold, to the kitchen tables where they’re consumed.

The program has been lauded by the United Nations as an “international benchmark” in the fight against modern-day slavery and called one of “the most important social-impact success stories of the past century” by the Harvard Business Review. Major companies, from Walmart and Trader Joe’s to McDonald’s and Burger King — which otherwise have blemished records on everything from union-busting to sexual harassment to holding down the wage floor — have all laudably joined the Fair Food Program.

For the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the main group behind the Fair Food Program, this makes it all the more disappointing that holdouts like fast food chain Wendy’s and the supermarket chains Kroger and Publix still refuse to join.

From March 14 to 18, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and its allies will march nearly 50 miles from Pahokee, Florida, to the billionaire enclave of Palm Beach to celebrate a decade of success for the Fair Food Program and to renew calls for Wendy’s, Kroger and Publix to finally join the program.

The starting and ending points for the march are symbolic. Pahokee is the site of a federally prosecuted forced labor operation that sold watermelons to Kroger, while Palm Beach is the home of Wendy’s top shareholder and chairman Nelson Peltz.

“We don’t want these kinds of forced labor cases to continue to exist,” said Nely Rodriguez, a Coalition of Immokalee Workers staff member. “That’s why we’re calling on companies like Wendy’s, Kroger and Publix to be part of the Fair Food Program.”

“Unlawful, Immoral and Inhumane”

In December 2016, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers received a distraught phone call from two workers who wanted to report a forced labor operation in the small agricultural town of Pahokee, Florida.

The two men were in the U.S. under H-2A “guestworker visas and, with dozens of other farmworkers, had been harvesting crops under extreme forced labor conditions, overseen by a crew leader named Bladimir Moreno, who owned a labor contracting company called Los Villatoros Harvesting.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice and news reports, Moreno and his co-conspirators subjected workers to a range of cruel and coercive acts between 2015 and 2017. They lied to workers about how much they would be paid and about reimbursing them for expenses in getting to the U.S. They illegally pulled workers from Florida and sent them to other states like Kentucky, Indiana and North Carolina. They forced workers to labor for long, grueling hours while stealing their wages. They stuffed workers into overcrowded motel rooms and warehouses. They confiscated their documents and kept them in the U.S. after their visas expired, threatening them with arrest and deportation if they resisted.

“They were being deprived of their basic freedoms,” Silvia Sabanilla, a former farmworker and Coalition of Immokalee Workers staff member, told Truthout.

The two workers, who escaped Moreno’s watch by hiding in a car trunk, ran into people in the community who told them to call the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which provided assistance and put them in touch with the appropriate authorities.

Moreno would eventually be arrested, tried and sentenced for leading a federal racketeering and forced labor conspiracy. He was sentenced to 118 months in prison and ordered to pay over $175,000 in restitution to the workers he victimized. His co-conspirators also received fines and prison time.

Because the workers were able to reach the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, they were ultimately able to bring some accountability to Moreno and some justice to the impacted workers. But not before corporations like grocery store megachain Kroger were able to sell the produce, harvested by forced labor, to their unwitting customers.

News reports say Walmart was also able to purchase watermelons — which are not covered under the Fair Food Program, according to its website — that were picked by Moreno’s crew.

“The Best Workplace-Monitoring Program I’ve Seen”

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers says abuses like this can be prevented — and that Kroger’s customers don’t have to risk buying produce picked by forced labor — if the company would join the Fair Food Program.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and its allies are marching from Pahokee to Palm Beach starting on March 14 with the hope that holdouts like Wendy’s, Kroger and Publix will finally join the Fair Food Program and “help finish the job of eradicating forced labor.”

The Fair Food Program is rooted in an agreement by participating growers and buyers across nearly a dozen states to enforce a “Code of Conduct” that ensures the protection of workers’ rights. A Fair Foods Standards Council monitors the program’s implementation and investigates reported abuses. Growers who are out of compliance risk being cut off from selling to the big fast food and grocery chains who are partners.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers emphasizes that the Fair Food Program is worker-driven. Participating farms are obligated to allow program staff onto company property to educate workers about their rights. Workers are given the number for a multilingual 24-hour hotline operated by a third party and assured they can report abuses without fear of retaliation. They learn about forced labor — including what it is, signs it’s happening, and how to report it. This worker-to-worker education and solidarity helps drive the program’s success.

“It’s a great example of how an educated worker is an empowered worker,” said Rodriguez.

Retail partners in the Fair Food Program also agree to pay a “Fair Food Program Premium” that workers receive as a bonus in their paychecks. According to the program’s website, this premium has paid out nearly $39 million to workers since it began in 2011.

The Fair Food Program has been widely recognized as one of the world’s most successful human rights programs. It has received a host of awards, including a U.S. presidential medal. One labor expert called it “the best workplace-monitoring program I’ve seen in the U.S.”

“We’ve designed what is essentially an antidote to the abuses that have existed for so long in the agriculture industry,” said Rodriguez.

Over a dozen fast food and grocery chains with otherwise checkered practices around workers’ rights have nevertheless become Fair Food Program partners, including McDonald’s, Chipotle, Burger King, Walmart and Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC.

This high-profile cast of industry partners, combined with the program’s proven record and accolades, make it all the more shocking that holdouts like Wendy’s, Kroger and Publix remain.

“It Gave Me So Much Joy and Hope”

The difference the Fair Food Program makes in the lives of workers can be measured in individual stories like those of Silvia Sabanilla.

Originally from Hidalgo, Mexico, Sabanilla came to the U.S. and worked in the fields for 16 years harvesting a range of crops.

“You wake up every morning with the intention of supporting your family and putting food on the table and supporting your kids,” she told Truthout, “and in wanting to be able to do that in a dignified way.”

But instead, with no protections in place, she faced a range of injustices and the constant threat of abuse.

There was the absence of basic facilities like restrooms. “You had to sneak off to the edge of the field in order to try to go to the bathroom,” Sabanilla remembered.

There was the lack of potable water provided by employers, which is essential for workers underneath the merciless Florida sun. “When you’re doing this incredibly hard labor, you’re sweating a great deal,” said Sabanilla. “You really need to stay hydrated in order to remain safe.”

But the worst thing was the constant fear of sexual abuse.

Sabanilla said women “face a lot of sexual harassment” while working in the fields. She gave examples of crew leaders who insinuate that they’ll offer better jobs to women in exchange for sexual favors.

“A crew leader might say, ‘Hey, there’s this other job that I need you to do on the other side of the field.’ But the reality is,” she said, “they’re not actually taking you to the edge of the field for work, but for something else.”

“A lot of women live in terror and in deep fear of having that kind of experience at work,” she said.

Before, said Sabanilla, “no one knew where you would report something like that.” But the arrival of the Fair Food Program brought a new set of protections that transformed her working conditions.

She remembered the first time that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers came to the fields where she was working and started talking to her and her co-workers about their rights. Workers were encouraged to speak out about problems at work and assured that they were now protected against retaliation. Crew leaders could no longer verbally abuse workers with impunity.

Soon, there were restrooms and water.

“It just gave me so much joy and hope,” she said. “It became a place that was much more dignified to work.”

A despised practice by crew leaders was the “copete,” a form of wage theft. Workers were expected to deliver “cupped” buckets that overflowed with extra tomatoes that were “basically a profit margin for the crew leader” but were “taking money out of the pockets of workers,” said Sabanilla.

Sabanilla said the Fair Food Program put an end to the copete at her workplace by designating a standard bucket measure that all program participants had to abide by.

“Now, if we bring a bucket that fits the visual standard, then we have to be paid for that work,” she said. “It’s just a much more calm environment.”

Sabanilla had gotten involved with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and then, in 2018, had the opportunity to join the staff. Now she organizes other workers and helps educate them about their rights.

“It’s Time for Wendy’s, Kroger and Publix to Join the Fair Food Program”

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers stresses that outliers like Wendy’s, Kroger and Publix have the power to prevent human rights abuses in their supply chain by simply joining their industry peers in partnering with the Fair Food Program. They’d also be ensuring that their customers would not unknowingly purchase produce harvested by forced labor.

But who has the power at these companies to make the call to join the Fair Food Program?

AtWendy’s, no one is more powerful than Nelson Peltz, the billionaire head of Trian Partners, a hedge fund with the top stakenearly 20 percent — in Wendy’s. Peltz is also the chairman of Wendy’s board of directors. His partner at Trian, Peter May, is senior vice chairman, while his son, Matthew Peltz, is vice chairman. Peltz owns a $136.4 million estate in Palm Beach, where the upcoming Coalition of Immokalee Workers march will end. Trian also has an office in Palm Beach.

After Trian, the next three biggest shareholders are asset management firms Vanguard (8.1 percent), BlackRock (7.3 percent), and Massachusetts Financial Services Company (5.4 percent), according to Wendy’s 2022 proxy statement. All told, this means that just four Wall Street firms control nearly a 40 percent stake in the company.

Rodriguez said Wendy’s is “really the last holdout” of the Fair Food Program among the big fast food companies.

Money is no barrier to Wendy’s joining the Fair Food Program. Alongside its billionaire chairmen, Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor raked in over $23.5 million between 2019 and 2021. The company’s CEO-to-median-worker pay ratio is 703 to 1. Wendy’s reported $353.3 million in operating profit in 2022 and just announced a doubling of its dividend payout to investors.

At Kroger, a different billionaire is a top stakeholder: Warren Buffett, the world’s fifth-richest person, whose Berkshire Hathaway has an 8.4 percent stake in the grocery store empire. Alongside Buffett as top stakeholders are asset managers Vanguard (10.74 percent) and BlackRock (10.1 percent) — both top stakeholders in Wendy’s — and State Street (5.09 percent).

Like Wendy’s, Kroger is awash in cash. CEO Rodney McMullen took in nearly $62 million between 2019 and 2021. The company’s CEO-to-median-worker pay ratio is 679 to 1. Kroger reported $4.1 billion in operating profit in 2022 and celebrates its regular dividend payouts to investors.

Publix prides itself on issuing company stock to employees, but the billionaire Jenkins family, who founded Publix and retains board seats and a 20 percent ownership stake, still holds much of the power. The company made nearly $5 billion in operating profit in 2021, while CEO Todd Jones has taken in around $10 million between 2020 and 2022. The Jenkins family has donated to the Trump 2020 campaign and other conservative causes, and has been criticized for mistreating its LGBTQ workers.

Ultimately, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers said, it is investors, owners and executives like these who have the power to end human rights abuses in their companies’ supply chains by joining the Fair Food Program. If people like Nelson Peltz, Warren Buffet or BlackRock CEO Larry Fink say the word, their companies will have to join the program.

As Sabanilla, Rodriguez and others march through Florida’s sweltering heat in the coming days, they’ll be hoping that Wendy’s, Kroger and Publix will finally make the decision to help prevent the kinds of abuses that happened in Pahokee from happening again.

“This is the time for them to join the Fair Food Program and to work with us to eliminate these abuses that exist in their supply chain,” said Rodriguez.

“It’s the 21st century. We shouldn’t have any more cases of modern-day slavery.”

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