Myth #3: Corporations can be trusted to investigate, and to determine any appropriate corrective action, when their suppliers violate their workers’ human rights.

Myth #3: Corporations can be trusted to unilaterally investigate, and to determine any appropriate corrective action, when their suppliers violate their workers’ human rights.

In the third and final installment of our series, “The Three Founding Myths of Corporate-Led Social Responsibility,” we turn to the fundamental question: Who can be trusted to protect workers’ rights in corporate supply chains?

Can the corporations themselves be expected to police their suppliers’ operations and determine the appropriate actions in the event violations are found?

Or, to be effective, and therefore credible, must workers themselves have a voice in the protection of their own rights, in the investigation and resolution of complaints, in a partnership for responsibility with the corporations that benefit from their labor?

You will probably not be surprised to learn that Ahold and the CIW don’t see eye to eye on the answer.

We got this…

Ahold’s perspective on the question is clear, and is captured in this single sentence from its Statement on the Campaign for Fair Food:

“We commit to investigate any report thoroughly and promptly and to take appropriate action, if warranted.” read more

Efficiently packed into those sixteen words are three huge, paradigm-defining assumptions:

  1. Ahold should — and can — investigate abuses in its supply chain
  2. Ahold should define what constitutes appropriate action in response to a finding of abuse
  3. Ahold should decide when action is warranted

One small sentence for the public relations department. One giant leap — backward — from the real protection of human rights for workers who pick the produce sold in Ahold’s thousands of supermarkets across the globe.

No, you don’t…

In keeping with Ahold’s efficiency, we will address each of those points, in order, with quick dispatch:

1. The Fair Food Standards Council has fielded over 250 complaints from workers on participating farms in the past two seasons alone. The FFSC has a staff of 10 to manage the 24-hour complaint line, investigate complaints, determine the facts, and resolve the complaints. There is no way on God’s green earth Ahold could do all that for tomato workers in Florida, and so when the question is “can” Ahold investigate abuses in its supply chain, the answer is a resounding No.

And when the question is “should” Ahold play that role, the answer is the same, only more emphatic. Ahold’s many deeply-held, competing interests — from public relations damage control to supply chain stability — make it effectively impossible for Ahold to conduct the impartial, transparent, and rigorous investigation into potential human rights violations that the FFSC does every day.

When a proven, established program like the Fair Food Program exists — one lauded by human rights experts for its “independent and robust enforcement mechanism” — the answer for Ahold is clear: You can’t do this. You shouldn’teven try. Join the Fair Food Program.

2. See above re “competing interests.”

3. See above.

Those are the mechanical, utilitarian arguments against Ahold’s effort to arrogate to itself the role of policing its own supply chain. In short, it won’t work. It didn’t work in the past, when Ahold’s opportunity to police its supply chain solo coincided with decades of documented abuse, and it won’t work now.

The only parties that benefit from such an approach are Ahold and the growers who would cling to the old way of doing business in the fields. But far more people will suffer as a result. Workers will continue to suffer abuse as violations will go uninvestigated and bad actors will pay no consequence for their actions. Growers seeking to do the right thing will not be rewarded for their investments in improving working conditions. And consumers will continue to be sold food tainted with the abuses — from sexual harassment to slavery — of the past.

But there is one more argument, founded on the concept of basic human dignity.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: When it comes to human rights, the process of investigating abuses, of determining the “appropriate” thing to do, of deciding what is “warranted” to resolve a complaint, must include the humans whose rights are in question. And we’ll take it one step further. It must not onlyinclude the workers whose rights are in question, it must, when possible, be led by those workers.

To paraphrase an argument from an earlier moment in this campaign: Nothing can be done forworkers that is done without workers, because no matter how ethical and pure of intention Ahold believes itself to be, sooner or later, company executives have got to to wrap their minds around this simple truth: Farmworkers in Immokalee are building a new world — in partnership with growers and willing retail food corporations — in the fields of Florida, where farmworkers’ rights are respected and workers have a real voice in the industry. The very foundation of that new world is the recognition of farmworkers as a vital, and equal, part of the industry as a whole, every bit as essential to Ahold’s success as are Ahold executives and its preferred growers.

Because without farmworkers, there is no food, with or without integrity.


With that we conclude our three-part series in response to Ahold’s statement on the Campaign for Fair Food. We will close the series with the questions Lucas Benitez of the CIW traveled to Amsterdam last month to ask of Ahold’s executives. He was cut off before he could finish, so we invite Ahold to take this opportunity to see his hear his statement out and to respond — we promise we will publish your response…

“My name is Lucas Benitez and I am a representative of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) of Florida, an internationally-recognized human rights organization that is a leader in the fields of sustainable food, community organizing, anti-slavery work, and corporate social responsibility (CSR). The majority of CIW members are migrant farmworkers.

Two years ago, we came to Amsterdam and asked how Royal Ahold could justify refusing to pay a Fair Food premium and to meet higher ethical standards in their U.S. grown tomato supply chain, when many other corporate buyers such as McDonald’s and Subway were already participating in our Fair Food Program. Since that time, Trader Joe’s supermarket and Chipotle fast-food chains have also come on board — bringing the total to eleven major participating food purchasers. Ninety percent of Florida tomato growers are participating in the Fair Food Program, but Royal Ahold’s odd refusal to do so provides a market for recalcitrant growers.

Earlier this year, the UN Global Compact featured the Fair Food Program as a model of supply chain sustainability; just last week, the White House called the FFP “one of the most successful and innovative programs” in the world today in the fight to prevent modern-day slavery; and since we last came here, thousands of Ahold’s Giant and Stop-n-Shop customers have called on Ahold to participate in the FFP through marches, protests, and letters.

There is a history of labor rights violations in Florida’s fields and at least two forced labor investigations are currently being conducted. Are you confident enough in your self-monitoring to say before your shareholders right now, that these do not involve growers in Ahold’s supply chain?

And at this point, the question is no longer, “Why should Ahold join the Fair Food Program” but, “Why not?”

Why would Ahold and its shareholders not want to be a part of the highest ethical standards in the industry today?”

We await Ahold’s response.