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New York City Should Send a Message to Wendy’s, Which Refuses to Protect Its Farmworkers

jjbers wendys

Wendy's (photo: @jjbers)

When the country’s largest fast food companies were pressured to step up to combat sexual violence, forced labor, and other human rights abuses in their supply chain, they all eventually agreed — except one. 

After years of pressure, Wendy’s still refuses to follow its peers and join the Fair Food Program to protect farmworkers and uphold their human rights. But the movement to get Wendy’s to take this basic step is gaining momentum. It’s time for the New York City Council to pass a resolution introduced over a year ago calling on Wendy's to join the program as a necessary support for farmworkers' lives.

The City Council resolution is part of a campaign that has included years of organizing and work by people across New York and around the country — farmworkers, consumers, activists, students, religious leaders — standing against the power imbalance between major corporations and farmworkers and the abuses that can result. The campaign has included a consumer boycott, and protests including a five-day hunger strike and march in Manhattan. 

Even investors are getting on board: in April, a group representing $1 trillion in assets under management, including the Office of the New York City Comptroller, released a letter amplifying the campaign's demands and drawing attention to the widely-publicized failures to protect worker safety throughout Wendy’s supply chain. Convened by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, these investors emphasized the dire conditions farmworkers have faced nationwide during the global pandemic, and the Fair Food Program’s unique binding and enforceable COVID-19 safety protocols on farms within the Program, directly challenging the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Brown and Black essential workers.  

Activists and investors alike can see that the conditions faced by agricultural workers do not reflect our values. Many workers face poverty, sexual harassment, and forced labor. Around the time the resolution was introduced to the City Council, the Council’s Women's Caucus outlined its support, calling particular attention to the ways that farmworkers face gender-based violence. Caucus members described how sexual violence “has been a scourge in U.S. agriculture for decades with a staggering 80 percent of women farmworkers reporting having experienced sexual harassment and assault on the job.”

Both the investors’ and the Women’s Caucus letters are addressed to Nelson Peltz, who is both the Wendy’s Board Chairman and Chairman of Trian Partners, a hedge fund that is Wendy’s largest institutional shareholder and is based in New York City. A resolution from the City Council is essential in order to send a strong, united message to the corporate entity that holds the key to enacting this necessary change.

These conditions have also attracted the attention of religious leaders, including rabbis from T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization from which I draw moral strength, and whose members have marched alongside workers as they demand fair conditions. New York religious leaders representing a cross section of faiths have also come out in support of the resolution. Many faith traditions, including my Jewish faith tradition, call on us to seek justice and fight for human rights for all. In a letter published shortly after this resolution was introduced, New York’s religious leaders said it plainly: “Farmworkers deserve work with dignity.”

The Fair Food Program delivers that dignity. The Program was created a decade ago by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker-based human rights organization. The program brings together farmworkers, consumers, major food retailers and growers to create a 21st Century agricultural industry that no longer tolerates inhumane conditions and low wages for agriculture workers. Participating growers meet strict standards developed by farmworkers themselves — including the right to work free from sexual assault and harassment, safe working conditions including shade, water, and clean bathrooms in the fields, worker-to-worker education, the ability to report violations of their rights without retaliation, access to breaks, and safe transportation to work. 

The standards are upheld by an independent monitor that conducts regular audits and manages complaint investigation and resolution, ensuring growers are following the rules. If the monitor finds violations, growers risk being expelled from the program. In turn, participating buyers – large food retailers including Wendy’s main competitors, such as McDonald’s and Burger King – sign legally binding Fair Food Agreements that commit them to buying from certified growers. Each group benefits. Workers receive protection and fairer wages, growers get a stable workforce and distinguish their products from competitors, and retailers prevent abuses in their supply chain and uphold their stated corporate social responsibility values.

These ideas don’t just look good on paper, they get results. Since the Fair Food Program launched in 2011, farmworkers have received more than $36 million in pay bonuses thanks to the Fair Food Premium paid by Participating Buyers. Close to 75,000 farmworkers have been educated on their rights, and over 300,000 workers have received “Know Your Rights” education booklets. Additionally, the independent monitor has recovered over $400,000 for workers in funds they were owed. More than 9,000 audit findings have been addressed by corrective action  measures. Most fundamentally, workers now are protected when they call out injustices they face in the fields.

Already, major food companies such as McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, Chipotle, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Yum! Brands (the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut) participate in the program. Wendy’s absence on this list is notable – and unacceptable.

Wendy’s wants the smiling face on its logo to convey friendliness and quality. Those who know better understand that behind that smile is a corporate structure that stands alone among its peers in rejecting common sense protections for workers in its supply chain. It is time for Wendy’s to do its part to protect the vulnerable and working class, and the New York City Council should act swiftly to send a message to Wendy’s about how much New York values human dignity and worth.

Ruth Messinger, former Manhattan borough president, is global ambassador for American Jewish World Service and the social justice activist-in-residence at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan.

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