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Presbyterians join Coalition of Immokalee Workers at Wendy’s shareholders meeting

Several address corporate leadership on Fair Food Program

by Rick Jones and Andrew Kang Bartlett | Presbyterian News Service

Supporters of the Fair Food Program exit the Wendy’s annual shareholders’ meeting displaying ‘Boycott Wendy’s’ signage. (Photo by Rabbi Daniel Kirzane)

LOUISVILLE – As many as 27 supporters of the Fair Food Program (FFP) appeared at the Wendy’s Company annual shareholders’ meeting in Columbus, Ohio on Tuesday. The group was hoping to convince the restaurant chain to support the FFP’s efforts to improve human rights and eliminate the exploitation of farmworkers.

The group was made up of several ministry groups and faith leaders including the Presbyterian Hunger Program and Ruling Elder Rick Ufford-Chase, co-director of Stony Point Center and moderator of the 216th General Assembly (2004), as well as representatives from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

For years, the coalition and its supporters have been campaigning to convince Wendy’s corporate leadership to join 14 other fast-food companies, grocery chains and food service providers such as Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group, to improve the livelihood of farmworkers that supply their vegetables. The national Campaign for Fair Food aims to educate consumers on farm labor exploitation and build an alliance between farmworkers and consumers.

In 2010, the CIW and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange implemented the “Fair Food Code of Conduct” on 90 percent of the state’s tomato farms, impacting tens of thousands of workers. Wendy’s has rejected requests to join the program and last year, began purchasing its vegetables from Mexico.

During the annual meeting, corporate leadership detailed what the company is doing to ensure farmworkers’ rights are protected.

“It has not been pleasant to see how the company brand has been criticized,” said Wendy’s Chief Communications Officer Lilliana Esposito. “But we don’t believe we should engage in labor relations with our suppliers. We will continue to work with suppliers who share our own commitment and value quality.”

The company described its “Supplier Code of Conduct” which it says strengthens requirements by suppliers to ensure workers’ are not exploited or abused.

“The code covers all hand-harvested work and our partners know very clearly that if they don’t abide by the code, they will not be part of the system,” said Todd A. Penegor, Wendy’s president and chief executive officer. “It is very clear to the supply system that it must comply with this code.”

“Wendy’s enforcement includes termination of suppliers if there are violations in human rights, food work or health issues,” said Esposito. “We also provide third party audits of our suppliers to enforce those standards. We believe the audits and our code of conduct are sufficient.”

Penegor says the audits include talking with farmworkers, independent of the organizations they are auditing, putting Wendy’s in a “good position to protect workers in the field.”

During a question and answer session, as many as 12 FFP supporters were given an opportunity to speak.

“Escaping to Mexico to source your tomatoes does not relieve your moral quandary, it deepens it,” said Ufford-Chase. “The Los Angeles Times documented one farm where 200 workers, including children, were in forced labor. This is a farm where Wendy’s sources its tomatoes. It may seem like a long way from the fields of Central Florida or Mexico to your board, but I can assure you that the moral connection is clear and direct. Your refusal to support the Fair Food Program places you on the wrong side of history.”

Supporters of the Fair Food Program, demonstrate outside Wendy’s corporate headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Andrew Kang Bartlett)

Ufford-Chase said that until two years ago, Wendy’s had been his fast-food restaurant of choice and had adopted two children out of the foster care system, a campaign supported by Wendy’s. “I appreciate your core values and would like to see you bring your treatment of workers into line with those core values so that I, and many, many others could return.”

Lucas Benitez, CIW co-founder, told executives that through the agreement, they’ve eradicated radical abuses in the industry including forced labor and sexual harassment. He invited leadership to visit the farms and see up close the changes that are happening in the fields.

Pranav Jani, a professor at Ohio State University, said he was “surprised and astounded” that Wendy’s had not joined the Fair Food Program.

“You say you are against abuse in the field, but your Code of Conduct has no mechanism to enforce these regulations,” he said. “The Fair Food Program provides direct involvement with the workers, while Wendy’s code is notably silent on worker participation.”

Henry Pellar, a student at Ohio State, took part in a seven-day fast to protest the university’s contract with Wendy’s.

“Students from other universities are united our effort to cut contracts with Wendy’s,” he said. “More young people are joining the boycott, fighting the farmworker exploitation that occurs beneath the Wendy’s façade. We will keep building together and we are determined to win the imminent termination of Wendy’s contracts with universities.”

Edie Rassell with the United Church of Christ was critical of Wendy’s decision to work with Mexican suppliers. “Sexual violence is a huge problem for women in agriculture. Eighty percent are exposed to rape, stalking and other forms of sexual violence. In the Mexican fields, violence continues along with sub-human living conditions in scorpion-infested camps, while those who try to quit are beaten.”

Penegor responded by saying Mexico has made significant improvements in the rights of workers.

Another speaker asked if leadership would be willing to sit down at the table to discuss the issue. Corporate leaders said no.

“From a consumer/investor perspective, we do not see an impact from the boycott and our business is doing quite well,” said Penegor. “We are resonating with our customers and continue to see growth from last year. We will continue to educate the public on what we are doing to support workers’ rights and continue the growth we’ve seen over the last several years.”

While the discussions took place on the inside, a number of FFP supporters gathered, as they have in the past, outside the headquarters, protesting the company’s refusal to participate.

“It is not just farmworkers, but also consumers that are joining the boycott. If they want to do well for their business and gain consumers, they need to join the Fair Food Program,” said Lupe Gonzalo, CIW staff member. “Women are now able to work with respect and earn a dignified wage for their families. As workers, we are now treated with the dignity we deserve.”

Shelby Mack, with the Alliance for Fair Food, said people should continue to voice their concern to Wendy’s.

“Call the corporation, deliver a letter to the manager of your local Wendy’s restaurant,” she said. “Through demonstrations, letters and public statements, we are able to show that thousands of people support the boycott and demand Wendy’s join the Fair Food Program.”

Despite the company’s stance, Benitez believes their appearance had an impact. “The most powerful moment was when all 27 of us pulled out the ‘Boycott Wendy’s’ logo and proceeded to exit the building. We may have only had 27 in the room, but there were many many more on the outside that are supporting our efforts.”

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