Migrant farmworkers protest in New York City against sexual violence

Protesters march on Thursday to demand fast food giant Wendy’s sign up to scheme to tackle exploitation and improve wages in supply chains.

Claire Provost author pic
Aicha-Hanna Agrane Claire Provost
15 March 2018

Farmworkers fast in New York City.

Farmworkers fast in New York City. Photo: Noffar Gat/www.noffargat.com. All rights reserved.

“If you are a person with a lot of power, benefiting from conditions where there's sexual violence, sexual harassment, and you are not using that power to change that, then you are complicit in that violence,” said Julia de la Cruz, a migrant farmworker who travelled to New York City last week to join a protest against sexual violence in the agriculture industry.

“Enough! No more violence! No more sexual harassment, sexual violence in the fields. We demand respect, we demand dignity, we demand justice. We do not want charity,” de la Cruz told more than 200 people who gathered at a rally on Sunday in midtown Manhattan.

De la Cruz was one of several farmworkers and members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) who spoke at the event, which launched a five-day “freedom fast.” She said: “We're here with our bodies and without food in our bodies, without nourishing our bodies. It's a public act to let people know and make them aware [of these issues].”

Another woman, Antonia, added: “I’m here as a mother with two daughters and I’m fasting... [but] this sacrifice is nothing compared to that of some of our compañeras who are still in fields where they still haven’t broken the silence, where they’re still being mistreated.”

Farmworkers fast in New York City.

Farmworkers fast in New York City. Photo: Noffar Gat/www.noffargat.com. All rights reserved.

On Thursday evening (15 March), the farmworkers will end their fast with a “Times Up Wendy’s” march, which thousands of people are expected to attend. They are calling specifically for Wendy’s to join the CIW’s Fair Food Program (FFP) which they say has significantly tackled exploitation in other restaurant and retail supply chains.

Launched in 2011, the FFP has been described by the Harvard Business Review as an “audacious social change initiative” that “defied the odds and achieved life-changing results.”

Under the program, purchasers support wage increases for farmworkers by paying an additional penny ($0.01) per pound of produce and by buying only from growers that meet a code of conduct including a zero-tolerance policy for slavery and harassment. Companies currently involved in the FFP include McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and Taco Bell.

At Sunday's rally, women farmworkers described how conditions have changed in Florida's tomato fields under the FFP. Antonia said that when she arrived in the US state in the early 2000s, "there were no protections, no restrooms, you had to go in the fields," while they also faced expensive rents, low wages, and sometimes struggled to buy enough food to eat themselves.

The CIW also challenges Wendy’s decision to stop buying tomatoes from suppliers in Florida, shifting purchases to Mexico. In statement released prior to this week's fast, farmworkers said: “sexual harassment in [Mexico’s] fields is endemic and farmworker women are intimidated into silence by a culture of fear, violence, and corruption.”

Farmworkers protest in New York City.

Farmworkers protest in New York City. Photo: Noffar Gat/www.noffargat.com. All rights reserved.

Wendy’s, which recently reported 2017 revenues of more than $1.2 billion, and profits of almost $215 million, has hundreds of restaurants that it operates directly along with thousands of franchise outlets around the world.

In a strongly-worded statement sent to openDemocracy, the company accused the CIW of “spreading false and misleading information about the Wendy’s brand and our business practices in their continuing effort to extract a financial commitment from us."

“The idea that joining their program, and purchasing Florida tomatoes, is the only way to operate ethically is simply not true,” the company added, describing its products as ethically-sourced from suppliers under a “strict code of conduct… [and] third-party certified human rights assessments.”

“Other companies listed as Fair Food Program participants also purchase tomatoes outside of the United States but have not been subject to the type of criticism aimed at Wendy’s. This is hypocrisy and it exhibits a lack of transparency to which Wendy’s and its customers are entitled," it said.

In response, Reverend Noelle Damico of the Alliance for Fair Food said it's “offensive” and incorrect of the company to "imply CIW is trying to extort Wendy's." The CIW does not receive money from FFP participants, and the penny-per-pound premium paid by buyers "goes straight to the growers who pass it on to their workers as a bonus in their paycheck,” she said.

Wendy’s, Damico added, “is the only major fast-food company that no longer buys tomatoes from Florida at all, but rather shifted its purchases to Mexico.”

These purchases, she continued, are "hardly transparent – from which growers is Wendy's purchasing, what exactly are the monitoring processes by which Wendy's assesses the conditions in the fields, and, importantly, what are the consequences for growers who fail to uphold Wendy's standard?"

Reverend Noelle Damico in New York City.

Reverend Noelle Damico in New York City. Photo: Noffar Gat/www.noffargat.com. All rights reserved.

The farmworkers’ protest this week comes as state and civil society representatives have gathered in New York City for the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) talks at UN headquarters, which this year are focused on rural women.

"Companies in recent years use gender equality and gay-friendly branding to promote themselves and capitalise on our rights. But actions speak louder than words,” said Inna Michaeli at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), one of many women’s rights groups present at the talks.

"Wendy's move to Mexico illustrates how impunity is tied to transnational operations. It allows corporations to escape responsibility even more,” Michaeli added, describing risks to women in supply chains including “sexual violence, discriminatory wages and dangerous health hazards.”

She argued that new international laws are needed to regulate transnational corporations’ human rights impacts, pointing to ongoing discussions over a proposed binding treaty on this issue that have been underway at the UN human rights council in Geneva since 2014.

Negotiations over a draft binding treaty text are now expected to begin later this year. It’s time, Michaeli said, that the “international human rights system catches up with the reality of corporate power and impunity.”

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