“We appreciate the issues that you are raising with us today, and we’ve appreciated it each of the previous years that you’ve come.” – Dave Dillon, CEO, Kroger

Another shareholder meeting, another barrage of empty words from a food industry CEO as the Fair Food Nation demands real social responsibility, both inside and out of the Kroger
shareholder meeting in Ohio…

Even with much of the summer heat focused on Wendy’s and Publix, there’s certainly more than enough energy in the Fair Food Nation to share some with the other large supermarket chains that continue to turn their backs on the Fair Food Program — including Kroger, the nation’s second largest retailer after WalMart. On June 27 in Cincinnati, Ohio, over 60 protesters braved the rain to gather outside of Kroger’s annual shareholder’s meeting and call on the massive supermarket chain to respect the human rights of farmworkers.

In the streets

The picket and rally outside of the meeting comprised a diverse community of consumers, ranging from local students to faith coalitions from across Ohio, and reflected in its tone that unique midwestern combination of grit and good cheer. The rally was launched with inspiring words from Manuel Perez of the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center and Rubén Castillo Herrera (right) from Ohio Fair Food. Perez captured the spirit of the rally when he said: “If farmworkers can travel the length of the east coast to harvest so much of the nation’s food, the least we can do, living here right next door to Kroger’s headquarters, is to get out and honor our deep moral obligation to act in solidarity with them.”

Even as CIW and consumer representatives gathered with other shareholders inside the meeting (more on that in a minute), the energy outside was so high that picketers decided spontaneously to march from the meeting to Kroger’s HQ a half-mile away!

Although upon arrival at the corporate headquarters they were turned away at the door without a single word from Kroger’s leadership, the protesters never lost their smiles and fighting spirit. The action was covered by local reporters from the Examiner, which published a great slide show of the protest and a report. Here’s a short excerpt:

Kroger shareholders hear from farm worker advocates in annual meeting

“”We are here for a just cause,” said Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) founding member Lucas Benitez on Thursday morning, as he and Elena Stein of Interfaith Action prepared to join the Kroger annual shareholder meeting in Cincinnati […]

[…] This is the fourth year that CIW representatives have attended the Kroger shareholder meeting. This year the Responsible Endowments Coalition provided Stein and Benitez with proxies, so they were permitted to speak in the meeting for the first time.

After the shareholder meeting was under way, the protesters marched to Kroger’s corporate headquarters on Vine Street. CIW allies at the rally included the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, Ohio Fair Food, and members of Unitarian Universalist congregations in Cincinnati and Columbus.” read more

Meanwhile, inside the meeting…

A resolution was presented by Tom McCaney on behalf of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. Drafted in collaboration with three other religious, socially-responsible investors, all members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), the resolution requested a report on the human rights risks throughout Kroger’s supply chain. In an encouraging result, the resolution garnered 16% of the vote, an unusually high number in an world where resolutions like this one tend to score in the low single figures. Here below is an excerpt in which the resolution refers to the Fair Food Program:

Shareholders entering the meeting

As stated in Kroger’s Vendor Standards, our Code of Conduct “follows the U.S. Department of Labor regulations and the Fair Labor Standards Act.” Compliance with insufficient laws is not sufficient. The Florida agricultural industry has been plagued for generations with sub-poverty wages and exploitative working conditions including cases of modern slavery, despite these US regulations and laws […]

[…] The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, through which farmworkers, growers and corporate food buyers are successfully ensuring the human rights of tomato workers and improving the conditions under which they labor, is a prime example of the ILO principles in action. The 11 leading restaurant, food service, and supermarket companies that have already committed to the Fair Food Program agree to a strict code of conduct, a cooperative complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process.

The Fair Food Program was singled out in an April 2013 report of recommendations to the President as “one of the most successful and innovative programs” in the world today in the fight to uncover — and prevent — modern-day slavery. We urge Kroger to join the Fair Food Program to address real human rights risks in our supply chain and ensure the highest levels of accountability and real change because of independent monitoring through the Fair Food Standards Council.

Kroger has a well-earned reputation for treating its employees fairly. Farm workers in our supply chain deserve the same treatment.

We ask all shareholders to support this resolution and ask our Board and management team to make the human rights and dignity of our entire workforce a priority by joining the Fair Food Program now. Thank you.

In response to the resolution, Kroger CEO Dave Dillon largely stuck to the same script as Ahold and Wendy’s executives before him — all messages to the effect of “we don’t disagree with your goals, we just think we can handle this perfectly well on our own.” Here was Mr. Dillon’s version of this tired song and dance:
Dave Dillon, CEO: I just wanted to add a couple of observations. We actually share many of the objectives that you’ve described, and so I don’t even see much disagreement on some of the issues you’ve tried to describe in what we hope for the world around us. We believe though at Kroger that our code of conduct reflects our values of safety and respect in a very meaningful way. We lay down a hard line with suppliers that fail to adhere to our code of conduct; we don’t do business with them. We conduct social responsibility supplier audits, particularly in the Immokalee region. And we did not find any evidence of violating our code of conduct. And we also sent a team of our own auditors and compliance professionals to the region to survey working conditions and meet with suppliers.
The Questions and Answers session followed for the final segment of the meeting. Lucas Benitez of the CIW (shown below addressing the protesters during the rally before heading inside to the meeting) was the first person to speak:

“My name is Lucas Benitez and I am a representative of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) of Florida, an internationally-recognized farmworker organization addressing the longstanding history of abuse in the fields.

For the past four years, we have come to this meeting to ask how Kroger could justify refusing to meet higher ethical standards in their U.S. grown tomato supply chain, when 11 other major corporate buyers, such as McDonald’s and Subway, are already participating in our Fair Food Program.

Kroger’s empty references to its own self-monitoring of its supply chain stand in stark contrast to the Fair Food Program, a proven, established solution to decades of farm labor abuses, such as sexual harassment and modern-day slavery. The Fair Food Program has been lauded by United Nations human rights experts for its ‘independent and robust enforcement mechanism’ and praised by the White House for its unique effectiveness in the prevention of forced labor.

If Kroger professes a commitment to upholding the rights of those who make possible its profits, why haven’t you listened to the thousands of Kroger customers calling on Kroger to participate in the Fair Food Program through letters, protests and marches?

Mr. Dillon, why wouldn’t Kroger join this existing solution to abuse in the fields?”

Mr. Dillon briefly got a little funky in his response to Lucas, before quickly sliding back into the safe confines of CEO double-speak, this time borrowing a page from Publix in explaining that Kroger chooses “not to get involved in the labor discussions between (our) supplier and your group”:
Dave Dillon: No hablo espanol, so I appreciate the willingness to explain the words to me, that’s very helpful. We actually welcome you here. We appreciate the issues that you are raising with us today, and we’ve appreciated it each of the previous years that you’ve come. We believe that it is important for us to have a solid working relationship with our suppliers and find it more than awkward — in fact, difficult — to do a business arrangement, or to have to negotiate, both with our suppliers and with the labor groups that are working with our suppliers. So instead, we’ve tried to approach this from, I think, a very responsible way to ensure ourselves that the issues are being handled in an appropriate way through our code of conduct. We’ve chosen, and we believe its important to choose this way to not get involved in the labor discussions between the supplier and your group. Nonetheless, we respect your right to be here, we respect the voice that you are giving to this cause and the issues that you bring. So thank you for being here.
Since we’re all speaking Spanish here, it seems like a good time to share an age old Spanish proverb with Mr. Dillon, which goes like this: No se puede tapar el sol con un dedo. Translated: You can’t block out the sun with your finger.

You can try this at home. If you lift your finger and cover the sun just right, it may look to you like your are blocking out the most powerful source of light — and life — in our corner of the universe with just the tip of your finger. But that is nothing more than an illusion. The sun is not blocked, its heat and light are every bit as strong as ever, and only from your very limited perspective does it even appear that you have managed to dim its immense power.

The light of the new day dawning in Florida’s fields — thanks to the remarkable partnership (not dispute) among farmworkers, growers, retail buyers, and consumers — is no different. The Fair Food Program is a powerful new force in the world of agriculture, casting light into the darkness where human rights violations once flourished without consequence, giving hope for a better life where farmworkers were once locked in a world of poverty, humiliation and abuse.

That old world of farmworker exploitation was an undeniable part of Kroger’s business model, of Kroger’s profits, for decades. But the Fair Food Program is bringing an end to that model, just as inevitably as the first light at dawn signals the end of night, whether or not Mr. Dillon — and his counterparts at Wendys, Ahold, and Publix — choose to close their eyes to the facts in their company’s supply chains. While they may think their empty words, like a thin finger thrust at the sun, somehow overcome the inexorable power of human progress, their consumers, their competitors, and objective human rights observers from the White House to the United Nations decidedly see things differently. For them, the Fair Food Program shines brightly as the most encouraging news from the fields in generations.

No se puede tapar el sol con un dedo. Look it up, Mr. Dillon. The Spanish lesson is on us, as is the time and trouble you will save Kroger by joining the only social accountability program that can truly eliminate human rights violations in your company’s supply chain, not just block them from your sight.