a farm worker in a light red jacket holds a bucket while picking tomatoes
Workers pick tomatoes at a farm owned and operated by Pacific Tomato Growers on Feb. 19, 2021, in Immokalee, Florida. The workers, who are in the country on an agricultural visa, are mostly from Mexico. Workers for the company are also part of the Fair Food Program which ensures that workers receive fair wages and better working conditions in the tomato fields. The Fair Food Program was begun by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in 2010. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Farmworkers in Florida are turning up the pressure on Wendy’s. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker-based human rights organization, has been calling for a national boycott of the fast food chain since 2016 for their refusal to join the Fair Food Program (FFP), a partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions for farmworkers growing the produce used in retail establishments. Fourteen national buyers, including fast food giants like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell, have all joined the FFP since the program started in 2011. But despite years of protests, Wendy’s continues to evade national pressure. Now, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is partnering with Majority Action to press Wendy’s shareholders to vote against the board and ensure the protection of workers in its food supply chain.

“Not signing with the FFP puts the corporation at risk, [because] there may be complaints of forced labor, sexual harassment, or sexual assault,” said Lupe Gonzalo, a senior staff member with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. “We want investors to know that joining the FFP is an advantage they can have as a corporation.”

This month, over 800 farmworkers and consumers took to the streets in Palm Beach near the home of Nelson Peltz, the majority shareholder and board chairman for Wendy’s. In anticipation of Wendy’s shareholder meeting on May 18, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is hosting a rally and street theater protest May 12 in front of the headquarters for Trian Partners, Wendy’s largest institutional shareholder, in New York City. 

Peltz has the power to sign Wendy’s up for FFP but has been making excuses for not joining since 2013. At the time, Peltz claimed all the Florida tomatoes purchased by Wendy’s came from suppliers who already participated in the FFP. But, according to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the claim “rings hollow” and is unverifiable and meaningless because in the event that one of the suppliers is suspended from the program for violating worker safety conditions, Wendy’s would be under no obligation to shift its purchases to another supplier, as it would under the FFP rules. 

Shareholder rights and worker safety

In 2015, Wendy’s moved its tomato purchases from Florida to Mexico. The following year, Harper’s Magazine reported that Wendy’s purchased tomatoes from a Mexican tomato grower with documented modern-day slavery conditions, where workers were forced to work without pay, trapped in scorpion-infested camps, often without beds, fed scraps, and beaten when they tried to quit. That next year, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers began its boycott of the fast food chain. In 2018, Wendy’s announced they were moving their tomato purchases to greenhouses in the U.S. and Canada. But moving to greenhouses is not enough for Gonzalo, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and shareholders—they want long-term accountability.

“That’s not what protects workers’ rights,” Gonzalo said. “There could still be wage theft, there could still be sexual harassment, and other human rights problems. It’s not just having shade, it’s about protecting the human rights of workers in general.”

In 2021, the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, New York, filed and passed a shareholder resolution in conjunction with Investor Advocates for Social Justice seeking a report on Wendy’s protections for workers. That same year, the Department of Labor fined a U.S. tomato greenhouse owned by Wendy’s supplier, Mastronardi, for wage theft and discrimination, which was subject to a U.S. Customs Border and Patrol ban due to forced labor concerns. 

“Since that time, even though there was a majority vote on the shareholder proposal, the company has failed to adequately respond to or implement what the proposal directly calls upon them to do,” said Eli Kasargod-Staub, the executive director and co-founder of Majority Action. “This is an issue, not only of farmworkers’ safety, but also of shareholder rights.”

Majority Action and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are encouraging investors to vote against directors on the board of Wendy’s to hold them accountable for their failure to respond adequately to the majority vote shareholder proposal.

“The entire dynamic rests on the decision-making calculus of Nelson Peltz and client partners because, though they only have a minority stake in the company, they have outsized influence over the way this board works,” Kasargod-Staub said. “We’re not witnessing fully rational corporate decision-making here. We believe that Wendy’s requires a shift in thinking by the Trian leadership in order to actually get where we need to go.”

The benefits of the Fair Food Program

The stakes of holding Wendy’s accountable are high for farmworkers. For 12 years, Gonzalo’s average day as a farmworker in Immokalee, Florida, began before the crack of dawn. She would wake up at 4:30 AM, have breakfast, walk to the parking lot, and wait for buses to transport her to the fields where she would spend her day harvesting the nation’s produce for meager pay. At the farm, she and other farmworkers would receive 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket they harvested. By the end of the 12-hour day, she would have harvested anywhere between 100-150 buckets totaling up to $250-375 a week and less than $15,000 a year. 

Gonzalo said everything changed once the FFP began implementation at the farm she was working for. 

“They just see us as tomato-producing machines,” Gonzalo said. “They didn’t care so much if we had water or if we were feeling hot or if women were facing sexual harassment situations. To hear about this program and to hear that for the first time women could report harassment and that the consequences were not going to be for us, that was very powerful for me. It felt like a new day.”

Gonzalo began attending Coalition of Immokalee Workers meetings and in 2013 joined the team as a worker educator, teaching farmworkers about their rights. 

“We ourselves are going to do the education sessions because we have the confidence to talk to the workers, because we come from that same experience,” Gonzalo said. “That is what has given the program great success, because we know what the conditions are and we know that it can be changed, if the workers report and are encouraged.”

The demands for Wendy’s include paying 1 cent more for each pound of tomatoes, given directly to the workers as a bonus at the end of the week, and commit to sign a code of conduct that was created by the workers themselves, which includes basic rights such as having shade, breaks, clean water to drink, and a process for workers to report sexual harassment and modern slavery conditions.

“The worker’s voice should be heard,” Gonzalo said. “The program only works if they are listening to the voice of the worker because the workers are the experts. They are the ones who know what problems are happening on the ranch, they are the ones who know if the program is working for them, so that is why it is important to always be listening to them.”

According to FFP, since 2011, they have received and resolved 3,110 hotline complaints of worker conditions and addressed 9,357 audit findings. If a grower is found to be in non-compliance with the code of conduct, such as a crew leader sexually harassing farmworkers, then the FFP speaks with the farm company crew leader and instructs them to fire the crew leader. If the grower refuses to fire the crew leader, FFP harnesses the power of the market and informs the corporations not to buy from that supplier because they are in non-compliance with the code of conduct. 

“It is a very effective way to protect workers’ rights,” Gonzalo said. “It’s a big deal to have someone that powerful walk out of a company over a report. It sends a message to all the crew leaders and supervisors who for years had controlled the power that they can’t do that anymore.”

Gonzalo hopes that Wendy’s will sit down with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and join the FFP, and that consumers think critically about where their food comes from and the conditions the workers may be living in.

“Vegetables do not arrive alone in our refrigerator,” Gonzalo said. “There are hands that harvest it and process it until it reaches our table. Corporations only show the pretty side, but not the side where there is suffering.”

Alexandra Martinez

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...