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Will Wendy’s Help Protect Farmworkers From Sexual Violence?

s.e. smith

Wendy's has chosen to source tomatoes and other produce from Mexico, including from firms with a known history of human rights violations.

Two hundred farmworkers and allies on Monday descended on the Manhattan offices of Nelson Peltz, the board chairman at Wendy’s. They say Wendy’s could do more to protect the human rights of people in their supply chain, and they’re calling on the fast food company to reform the way it acquires produce, especially tomatoes. 

A delegation of faith leaders and farmworkers asked for a meeting early Monday, Lupe Gonzalo, a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), told Rewire through an interpreter. They made it as far as security before being turned away. “This was not as simple as refusing a group of people,” she said. “It was an acceptance of the violence and sexual harassment that continues to happen in the fields.”

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker justice program founded in 1993, is an innovator in pushing for human rights in its home state of Florida and beyond. One of its most successful campaigns is the Fair Food Program, which has used third-party monitoring to defend human rights in the field since 2011. Buyers for companies who participate in the program pay a premium of a penny per pound on tomatoes in exchange for better wages for workers, and a hotline allows workers to report abuse without fear of reprisal. The ability to report has led to meaningful changes in the field, including investigations into over 1,000 allegations in six years.

The design of the Fair Food Program has received accolades from human rights leaders, the United Nations, former U.S. presidents, and the MacArthur Foundation. It’s a scalable model that changes lives by putting farmworkers in charge.

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CIW worker organizers are very concerned about issues like wage theft, threats of deportation, and other tactics leveraged against farmworkers, who sometimes lack the skills or privilege to fight back. Undocumented farmworkers can struggle to access legal remedies. But the Harvest Without Violence campaign is focusing on a specific issue: sexual harassment and assault in the fields, something workers say is rampant.

The United States is reckoning with sexual harassment and assault in tech companies, Hollywood, Congress, media, and beyond—and farmworkers want to be added to this conversation. Their work can expose them to extreme vulnerability, making them targets for would-be sexual assailants. A large number of women in the agricultural industry are saying “me too,” and the CIW thinks it has a tool that could help mitigate this problem in the form of the Fair Food Program.

Up to 80 percent of women in the fields report sexual harassment and assault, and for farmworkers, the constant threat of harassment weighs heavily on their sense of dignity, according to the CIW. “Many, many times I’ve seen it,” CIW member Julia de la Cruz told Rewire through an interpreter. “When you see it, you feel useless.” Fearing reprisal, women don’t speak up for themselves, or others.

Wendy’s is one of the Fair Food Program holdouts among major fast food companies, and that makes it a target for the organization, which has pushed for a boycott to encourage the company to join. “Wendy’s bears the name of a woman and it’s shameful to think that they are supporting these kinds of abuses,” de la Cruz said. According to the CIW, the company has chosen to source tomatoes and other produce from Mexico, including from firms with a known history of human rights violations.

Wendy’s did not respond to a request for comment.

The company relies on a supplier code of conduct that sets standards for companies in its supply chain. It says suppliers should “Do the Right Thing” and “Treat People with Respect,” specifying that vendors must comply with applicable labor law, “respect” human rights and labor law, and refuse to tolerate harassment. It indicates that third-party inspections may be performed, but doesn’t provide details on the nature of those inspections.

The CIW maintains this is not enough. It points to the Fair Food Program as a worker-driven and effective approach to protecting vulnerable people, and one with a high degree of transparency. It includes not just third-party inspections and a complaint system, but also worker and consumer education. CIW members travel throughout their communities to inform farmworkers about their rights and provide them with self-advocacy tools.

The growing national conversation about sexual harassment and assault couldn’t have come at a better time for farmworkers. They’ve organized Harvest Without Violence since the summer, and when they took to the streets of New York for consumer education and Monday’s action, they did so with increasing scrutiny on men in power, and men are taking notice.

On the other side of the country, 700,000 farmworkers wrote an open letter in solidarity with those in Hollywood who have come forward with sexual harassment and assault allegations. “Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security,” said the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas.

Their work highlights the often invisible nature of farmworkers; consumers may not think about the steps in the supply chain between someone picking a tomato and eating a burger, but those steps involve a lot of human beings. While many of the voices involved in the national discourse about sexual harassment and assault are prominent women naming prominent men, or women coming out of obscurity to open up about abuse, farmworkers are different. It’s “managers and supervisors,” de la Cruz said, ordinary men on the ground, who are driving an epidemic of violence against women in the fields.

As consumers debate whether they want to watch movies produced by Harvey Weinstein, or vote for U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, or enjoy the works of Roman Polanski, the CIW is hoping people will have similar discussions about the source of their produce. The Fair Food Program is effective in part because consumers leaned on companies like McDonald’s, Yum Brands (Taco Bell), Walmart, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods. Farmworkers are showing up for people across the social spectrum and they hope their gesture of solidarity will be returned.  

Gonzalo was disappointed that Peltz wasn’t willing to meet with workers, but she’s not giving up. Speaking from the bus on the way home, she said they’d take the drive to “reflect together and continue fighting,” which includes, she said, “continuing to tell the stories of women who are working with dignity for the first time” on farms that participate in the Fair Food Program.

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