Tomato Fight: Farmworkers Launch National Boycott Against Wendy’s

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is pushing the chain to join its Fair Food Program.
(Photo: Coalition of Immokalee Workers/Facebook)
Mar 3, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

If you enjoy the occasional nostalgic turn into the Wendy’s drive-through, that bright hint of red tomato on your burger may not be so innocent. There’s a long-documented history of human trafficking, wage theft, and other abuses in the U.S. tomato industry, which the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been fighting to change since 1993. It’s a fight the group, organized and run by farmworkers, has been winning. Nearly every major fast-food company has signed on to the CIW’s Fair Food Program, which increases the price of tomatoes by a penny per pound to increase pay, improve working conditions, and extend new rights to workers. Wendy’s remains the lone holdout.

On Thursday, protesters will march in New York City to launch a national boycott of the chain. The tactic has worked in the past for CIW, but considering the widespread support the farmworker group now has, it’s one it thought it had moved past.

“In light of the Fair Food Program’s unparalleled success in eliminating longstanding human rights violations in the fields, it is preferable at this point for companies looking for solutions to abuses in their supply chains to come to the program of their own volition,” the CIW’s Lupe Gonzalo said in a statement. “By now, protests and boycotts should be no longer necessary.”

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But according to the CIW, Wendy’s has not only refused to help farmworkers, but it made changes for the worse. As the Fair Food Program became widespread in Florida—the leading domestic supplier of fresh tomatoes—Wendy’s began buying tomatoes in Mexico. Major corporations purchasing produce from the country say their suppliers are “committed to decent treatment and living conditions for workers,” according to the Los Angeles Times, which reported in a 2014 exposé that Mexican farmworkers were working without pay, without the ability to leave company-owned camps, and without access to basic amenities such as fresh running water and bathrooms.

“They were profiting from the suffering of our community, and now they go to profit off of other communities that are in even worse circumstances,” the CIW’s Gerardo Reyes Chavez said in an interview. “That is just despicable.”

In 2013, Wendy’s defended its decision not to take part in the Fair Food Program in a statement that read in part: “We believe it’s inappropriate to demand that one company pay another company’s employees. America doesn’t work that way.” But many companies are bowing to consumer demands to improve conditions for animals, farmworkers’ rights, and sustainability. In January 2016, Wendy’s publicly announced its intentions to have cage-free eggs in all its restaurants by 2020, among other new animal welfare standards.

Wendy’s most recent supplier code of conduct does include many of the same demands CIW makes on behalf of farmworkers: voluntary employment, safe and sanitary working and housing conditions, fair wages, time off, and more. Yet, unlike with its animal welfare standards, which are backed up by routine audits, it’s unclear whether Wendy’s practices any enforcement of these farmworker standards.

But the need for Wendy’s participation is more symbolic than necessary. It is a major tomato buyer, but compared with the other companies that have signed on to the FFP, it represents a “fraction of that entire market,” Chavez said.

Although the penny per pound paid by corporations in the FFP only raises wages slightly, Chavez said these incremental changes could alter the entire industry. If enough major buyers like Wendy’s sign on, the standards of the entire tomato supply chain could be improved—meaning that even smaller buyers would be supporting instead of harming farmworkers. “We know that we need to bring in those who are key players and have more influence within the food retail industry to bring everybody else on board,” he said.

Unlike animal welfare issues—or even fast-food workers and the highly visible Fight for $15 movement—farmworkers’ rights and wages haven’t become a national issue with American eaters, and perhaps that’s why Wendy’s has continued to drag its feet. There are programs like Food Justice Certified and Domestic Fair Trade that provide verified labels for food from companies that commit to higher standards for farmworkers—yet consumers are much less likely to see labor-related labeling stamped on an apple or a specialty food product than a certification for “GMO-Free,” “Organic,” or even “Fair Trade.” The average shopper or diner doesn’t expect to see a label stating the food was “farmworker approved” before buying it.

When it comes to animals or produce, consumers eat the product, making what goes into growing or raising it a more intimate concern. That is not the case for farmworkers, and in many cases they have been forgotten amid the continuing growth of the farm-to-table movement. But if the Wendy’s boycott is successful, it could show buyers and farmers outside the fast-food industry that consumers care about farmworkers’ rights too.