THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Behind the Braids

Students, farmworkers, and the Fair Food Program

by Natalie Lerner

Illustration by Katya Labowe-Stoll

published April 12, 2018


 

During spring of 2015, my first year at Brown, I participated in a campus-wide movement called #MoneyTalksAtBrown. This student-organized march and campaign took place in response to deplorable practices on the part of the school administration with regard to their handling of a sexual assault case that fall. Specifically, two female students were drugged at a party at the now-defunct Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, after which one of the women was sexually assaulted. A Title IX case was brought forward, and in February 2015, all the charges against the accused student were dropped. However, there was evidence of financial ties between the accused perpetrator and the Brown Corporation board of trustees, and after the charges were dropped, many students (including myself) believed that the financial interests of the University influenced their decision in this case.

Watching hundreds of my fellow students show up to decry sexual assault and the University’s unwillingness to prioritize the wellbeing of survivors over its own financial interests, I felt both deeply angry at Brown as an institution and deeply inspired by many of my fellow students. Some students carried mattresses, galvanized by the protest of Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia University, who carried a mattress around campus for a year in protest of Columbia’s handling of their sexual assault case. Most people in the crowd taped dollar bills with “IX” (for Title IX) written in red tape over their mouths.

However, while students showed up in solidarity and anger, the Brown administration remained unwilling to address the issues raised in this sexual assault case. President Christina Paxson issued a statement that appeared in the Providence Journal the day after the protest in which she commended the protest for being “respectful” and noted that Brown was making progress with regard to handling of sexual misconduct. In addition, she ultimately did endorse many of the broader policy suggestions made by student organizers. However, the case that sparked the protest was not addressed by the university, and students continued to speak out about the ways in which the university’s financial interests interfered with its ability to prioritize student wellbeing.

Since these events in the spring of 2015, I have come to realize that the relationship between financial interests and handling of sexual misconduct extends far beyond Brown. In particular, watching the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) campaign to push Wendy’s to sign on to the Fair Food Program (FFP), I have been feeling similarly to how I did my freshman spring—both inspired and outraged.

The FFP is a partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that strives to ensure that farm workers receive fair wages and good working conditions. The FFP is a comprehensive and successful model that pushes for worker-driven social responsibility in the agricultural industry. Over the course of the past 10 years, all other major fast food companies have signed on. To accomplish its goal, the FFP has set forth the following standards:

1) Participating buyers agree to pay the Fair Food Premium (a penny more per pound) in addition to the normal price they pay for tomatoes to supplement farmworkers’ paychecks.

2) Buyers agree not to purchase produce from growers who do not comply with the FFP’s Code of Conduct, a set of guidelines around employment practices to which growers agree to adhere.

To ensure that these standards are met, the CIW holds worker education sessions across the Eastern Seaboard to inform workers of their rights, and also provides a “Know Your Rights and Responsibilities” booklet to newly hired employees, which outlines some of the tenets of the FFP. In addition, a bilingual investigator operates a 24/7 complaint line for workers to report violations of their rights, from which the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC) conducts in-depth audits of the participating farms. This complaint line, along with the standards and processes the FFP has implemented with regard to sexual assault, are part of what makes the program so powerful and transformative. First, when a complaint is made, the FFSC investigates the issue, working in collaboration with the participating grower and with workers to understand the full picture in a given situation. In addition, the FFSC attempts to include an educational component within complaint resolutions, to make clear that complaints are handled without retaliation against workers. In this way, worker-driven accountability is encouraged. If the complaint is found to be true, in the case of sexual assault and harassment, the FFP terminates its relationship with the participating grower unless immediate corrective action, including firing the offender, is taken.

This process stands in sharp contrast to the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) model employed by Wendy’s. The CSR approach emphasizes voluntary and aspirational standards with very little monitoring, instead of legally binding, obligatory commitments with worker-driven monitoring (as seen in the Fair Food Program). Brown’s institutional model is not far from Wendy’s CSR approach, in which the corporation or institution has leverage over the sexual assault survivor, rather than the other way around. In the FFP model, there is a clear process in which both the institution (i.e. the grower) and the perpetrator of sexual misconduct are held to account, whereas at Brown and Wendy’s, that has rarely been the case.

The FFP is not only a good model in theory, but has been shown to improve the experience of farmworkers across the board. Since 2011, the Fair Food Standards Council has resolved—often in a matter of days—nearly 2,000 complaints through their complaint hotline.  The FFSC has conducted 20,000 interviews with workers by way of their seasonal announced and unannounced audits at participating farms. The United Nations has recognized the program, and the FFP has even won a Presidential Medal for its successes in combating the abuse of farmworkers.

 

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On March 15, I, along with hundreds of other students from across the Northeast, converged in New York City to join in the CIW’s #TimesUpWendys march. This march, which came on the heels of a five day Freedom Fast, was part of a longstanding boycott of Wendy’s, and convened outside of the office of Nelson Peltz, Wendys’ board chair. Standing outside of Peltz’s office, surrounded by thousands of other protesters, I felt the incredible power, joy, and resilience of the CIW. This feeling, along with the knowledge of what the FFP has accomplished over the years, makes me even more shocked at Wendy’s refusal to sign onto the program. Why is Wendy’s unwilling to sign, especially when all other major fast food companies already have? While companies like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway ultimately have listened to worker demands, Wendy’s has refused, despite tireless organizing on the part of the CIW. Why?

On Wendy’s official website, one can find its “Code of Conduct For Suppliers", in which the company states that one of their core values is to “Do the Right Thing and Treat People with Respect.” Wendy’s says it believes its “success begins and ends with our people and the Supplier companies that have been thoughtfully selected to do business with us.” But if that is the case, it is odd that they have switched suppliers. After the implementation of the Fair Food Program throughout the state of Florida, instead of signing on, Wendy’s abandoned its tomato supplier and began to purchase tomatoes from the Mexican supplier Bioparques de Occidente, a company whose human rights abuses were reported on by the Los Angeles Times in December 2014. These abuses include the fact that many workers are not allowed to leave the large Bioparques, where they pick tomatoes for extremely low pay, receive insufficient food, and work under the threat of physical violence from camp bosses, particularly if they dare to ask for more food or resources for their families. In addition, multiple studies have suggested that 80 percent of female farmworkers experience sexual assault, and it is likely that these statistics also apply in the case of Bioparques.

This choice to source tomatoes from businesses with such inhumane practices blatantly contradicts Wendy’s “Code of Conduct For Suppliers”, which states that the company takes “all human rights and labor practices issues seriously and expect the same from our Suppliers.” Rather than just “expecting” their suppliers to behave in accordance with human rights and fair labor laws, Wendy’s should require its suppliers to meet its code of conduct. Otherwise, the company condones human rights abuses such as poor working conditions, sexual assault, and denial of fair wages.

 

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One of the key successes of the FFP is its prevention of sexual violence in the fields—a principle Wendy’s Code of Conduct theoretically supports. However, if that is the case, why is Wendy’s spokesperson Heidi Schauer accusing the CIW of “exploit[ing] the positive momentum that has been generated by and for women in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement to advance their interests”? In fact, it seems like the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements are exactly aligned with the goals of the Fair Food Program—and many of the leaders of these movements agree. In response to Wendy’s statement, leaders in the Time’s Up movement—including Alyssa Milano, Caitriona Balfe, Amber Tamblyn, and Eve Ensler—came out in public support of CIW farmworker women and the Wendy’s Boycott. As Milano says, “To suggest that farmworker women—whose voices, power, and strength were on impressive display in front of the offices of Wendy’s Board Chairman all last week during their Freedom Fast—are somehow unwelcome intruders in the fight for dignity and safety for women is downright absurd and unbelievably offensive.”

In the height of the #MeToo era in which powerful male leaders in the film, tech, and other white collar industries are being held to account for sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, and in which millions across the globe are exposing this problem on social media with the #MeToo hashtag, women farmworkers are shining a critical spotlight on the ways in which this violence intersects with issues of labor and migrant justice. And yet, Wendy’s has chosen to remain on the side of violence and impunity, refusing to acknowledge and take action to reverse their own complicity in sexual assault and harassment against farmworkers. Instead of choosing to sign on to a program with a worker-based accountability model, which has been proven to reduce sexual assault against farmworker women, Wendy’s has shifted to purchasing from growers with a proven track record of violence against workers. It is clear that Wendy’s is prioritizing its own corporate interests over the safety and wellbeing of the people who pick its tomatoes.

 

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It is now the spring of my senior year at Brown. As I think back to the events of the spring of my first year here, the parallels between financial interests and sexual violence in both cases are hard to miss. And we, as students, must take action, just as we have for issues of sexual assault on campus. Wendy’s regularly targets millennials and Generation-Z-ers in its marketing strategy: the corporation recently released a mixtape, revamped its marketing strategies, and its CEO has explicitly stated that the company has changed its PR strategy in order to appeal to a younger consumer base, saying, “The transformation of the Wendy’s brand is essential to establish credible relevance with the Millennial generation.”

Therefore, it is on us as students, young people, and daily consumers to say that we will not stand for sexual assault on our campu or in the fields. We must protest, boycott, and speak out against Wendy’s failure to support the people who produce its food. We must elevate real, enforceable solutions to stamp out and prevent sexual harassment and assault in the workplace—and hold corporate giants like Wendy’s responsible for failing to rid their supply chains of human rights violations.

Last Thursday, on April 5, at noon, a group of students in solidarity with the CIW held a rally on the steps of Faunce. They read words from the CIW, shed light on the Wendy’s boycott, and called on Brown as an institution to take action in instances of sexual assault, no matter where they occur. This rally was a part of a larger national Day of Action put together by the Student Farmworker Alliance, a national organization that mobilizes students to act in solidarity with the CIW. This national Day of Action included rallies in more than 25 other cities, all organized by students or young people. It was powerful to hear my fellow Brown students call on Wendy’s, Brown, and other students to listen to and show up for farmworker women, and it was inspiring to know that, across the country, so many other young people were doing the same. While Wendy’s has not responded after the day of action, the CIW is not giving up. More actions are happening throughout the country, and media outlets and celebrities are continuing to discuss the CIW and the #MeToo movement, lending the campaign visibility and traction.

So what can we, as students, do right now? First, don’t eat at Wendy’s! Second, take to social media with the hashtags #ItsOnWendys and #TimesUpWendys. Wendy’s has made a name for itself on Twitter and Facebook, and we can and should push back on these platforms, particularly as we are the company’s current target demographic. Finally, read up about the CIW online, talk to your friends about this issue, and keep an eye out for more upcoming events on Brown’s campus!

 

NATALIE LERNER B’18.5 is boycotting Wendy’s.