RFK Statement on McDonald’s Partnership with SAFE

For several years, the RFK Center for Human Rights has followed with dismay the appalling wage and work conditions in the US agricultural industry. Over the last 25 years, farmworker wages have been stagnant, as large-scale corporate purchasers hold down the price of produce. Sweatshops in the fields have become the norm, and slavery has reemerged.

As a representative workers organization, the has been bringing attention to these conditions and calling for industry-wide change. In March of this year, Taco Bell and Yum Brands took leadership in bringing an end to these human rights abuses by working with the CIW to pay a fair wage and improve working conditions in their supply chain. Given that Taco Bell and Yum! Brands have shown such leadership, it is clear that it is possible for McDonald’s to do so.

It is therefore with enormous disappointment that the RFK Center for Human Rights learns of McDonald’s decision to partner with Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) and to base their expectations for wages and working conditions in their agricultural supply chain on SAFE’s weak code of conduct. While the belated acknowledgement of the need to end the use of forced labor and to improve working conditions by McDonald’s and the agricultural employers represented by SAFE is a very welcome one, SAFE and its code of conduct cannot be considered a serious solution to the human rights violations now occurring in US fields.

It is important to note that SAFE’s code was written by agricultural employers without input from the workers it will affect. SAFE does not ensure worker participation in true multi-stakeholder collaboration, as McDonald’s requires of its suppliers in China, but instead undercuts efforts to create real change in the fields. The code also does nothing to address the urgent economic needs of the farmworkers in McDonald’s supply chain. Instead of guaranteeing a fair wage in the form of a real wage increase, as Taco Bell and Yum Brands have done, the SAFE code of conduct only commits employers to stop stealing wages from workers.

Regardless of the strength of the code of conduct, SAFE is not credibly independent from agricultural employers to ensure the code’s accurate monitoring or enforcement. Currently, SAFE is headed by the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association and the Redland Christian Migrant Association. The FFVA is a membership organization of agricultural employers, representing their interests. While the RCMA is an excellent child care provider, it has no expertise or experience with labor issues and, as much of its budget is funded directly by FFVA, it cannot be considered independent enough from agricultural employers to be a voice for fair labor standards.

By partnering with SAFE and embracing its weak expectations – which don’t include even such fundamental labor standards such as the right to overtime pay and freedom of association — McDonald’s is setting the bar lower even for its American agricultural producers than it does for its suppliers in communist China. This is a lost opportunity for one of the world’s largest and most well-known restaurant companies.
In 1966 Robert Kennedy said, “The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American society.”

The RFK Center for Human Rights calls on McDonald’s to be bold and have the courage to set a higher standard than that of SAFE, for with new ideas and a commitment to American ideals, McDonald’s has the ability to change the future of the countless workers that bring us food.