NESRI Statement on McDonald’s SAFE Code of Conduct

The National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) issues this statement to echo and affirm the concerns expressed by the RFK Memorial Center on Human Rights on the code of conduct created by growers of produce in Florida and McDonald’s through the newly formed Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) organization. McDonald’s has chosen to address human rights abuses against farmworkers picking produce for its supply chain through entering into a partnership that excludes farmworkers from oversight and monitoring of human rights conditions. McDonald’s is missing a historic opportunity to bring human rights to the United States. The workers who toil for up to fourteen hours in the fields to bring an abundance of food for our country deserve a place at the table. McDonald’s must partner with those affected by abuses in order to end them, in particular the farmworkers with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) which has put these issues on the table.

In contrast, Yum!Brands Inc., parent company of fast food giants such as Taco Bell and KFC, has demonstrated that corporate leadership on human rights in partnership with farmworkers is both possible and effective. Yum!Brands Inc. has significantly increased wages of farmworkers within their supply chain, and works closely with the CIW to create effective monitoring for forced labor and slavery. As the RFK statement reflects, the SAFE code of conduct was written by growers with no input by farmworkers themselves and fails to address basic human rights such as freedom of association or the right to decent wages that can ensure a dignified life. This is directly in contravention to McDonald’s global code of conduct that not only requires that wages be paid according to law but also that “supplier employees working on product supplied to McDonald’s must be fairly compensated.” Given that farmworker wages have stagnated for twenty-five years, and farmworkers are among the poorest, if not the poorest, laborers in the United States earning roughly $7,500 per year, which is far below the national poverty line, McDonald’s can not take the position that suppliers are providing fair compensation.

Despite overtures from CIW, the farmworker organization which has worked so successfully with Yum!Brands to address a range of human rights in the fields, McDonald’s has chosen to partner exclusively with growers. Growers in Florida have been implicated in criminal forced labor and slavery of farmworkers during federal trials of labor sub-contractors. For example, United States Judge K. Michael Moore of the Southern District of Florida noted at the sentencing of one defendant who was found guilty of running a slavery operation in the fields in Florida and was hired as a labor sub-contractor by a grower:

It was an interesting trial in educating me to see how this industry works . . . . I think the government was correct and appropriate to bring this case and make sure that these workers are protected. . . . [However,] it seems that there are others at another level in this system of fruit-picking, at a higher level, that to some extent are complicit in one way or another in how these activities occur. . . . I think there is a broader interest out there that the government should look at as well, and it goes beyond a single incident.

Judge Moore was referring to responsibility for forced labor and slavery up the supply chain, clearly including the growers. NESRI lauds McDonald’s for recognizing its responsibility for these abuses and encourages dialogue with growers. However, while constructive engagement with growers is an essential component to addressing human rights abuses in the agricultural sector, its current approach is a poor substitute for working with farmworkers themselves. This is reflected in the current code which does nothing more than require growers not to steal wages, rather than pay decent wages, and not to allow slavery, rather than requiring protection of freedom for farmworkers to associate and defend their own human rights.