“We aren’t asking you to create the solution.  The solution already exists…”


Kroger executives, shareholders faced with massive labor violations in supply chain…

As Kroger shareholders poured into their annual meeting in Cincinnati last Thursday, they were greeted by some rather disturbing news from the company’s supply chain: A Kroger tomato supplier in Florida by the name of Tomato Thyme — operating, in theory, under the ever-watchful eye of Kroger’s internal supply chain monitoring process — was fined $1.4 million just last month by the U.S. Department of Labor for having “willfully disobeyed federal labor laws and exploited vulnerable, low-wage workers.” Worse yet, in its press release announcing the fine, the Department of Labor specifically named Kroger as one of companies doing business with the farm.  

This shocking news was announced loud and clear both outside and inside the shareholder meeting by CIW members and Ohioans alike, the farmworkers and their consumer allies joining forces to denounce the national supermarket chain for its refusal to join the Fair Food Program.  Today, we bring you a direct account of the day’s events, straight from the Fair Food delegation in Cincinnati.

Outside the meeting…

The colorful protest outside of the Cincinnati School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where the shareholder meeting was held, was replete with flags, banners, and chants driving home the message that Kroger’s refusal to join the Fair Food Program was more than just an evasion of responsibility — it was, in fact, an active choice to support suppliers who continue to run roughshod over workers’ basic rights in the fields.


Worker members of the Cincinnati Interfaith Worker Center (CIWC) marched and chanted alongside students, representatives of several faith communities, and community members as shareholders entered the meeting, saying, “Kroger, shame on you!  Farmworkers deserve rights too!”  Passersby honked and took flyers describing the reasons behind the protest – some shocked to learn of Kroger’s rejection of the Program, many already aware.

At the heart of the picket, participants held a freshly made banner, the paint still drying, declaring: “Kroger supplier fined $1.4 million for labor violations.

Inside the shareholder meeting…

Nely Rodriguez of the CIW, Manuel Perez of the Cincinnati Interfaith Worker Center, and Mother Paula Jackson of Church of Our Savior followed the line of shareholders into the meeting, proudly representing not only their organizations, but tens of thousands of farmworkers and consumers across the country who respectively harvest for, and buy from, the massive supermarket chain.

When the time arrived for questions, Nely Rodriguez from CIW was first to speak, addressing the company’s CEO, Rodney McMullen, directly:

Kroger_Shareholder_Meeting_2016_78542016 marks the seventh year that we’ve come to this meeting to call on Kroger to join the Fair Food Program and uphold ethical standards in your supply chain, and it is the seventh year that you have once again rejected this proven solution to farmworker exploitation in exchange for a code of conduct with no real enforcement or worker participation.

Since your last shareholder meeting, the Fair Food Program has expanded to six additional states and to strawberries and peppers in Florida.  And a 14th buyer, AHOLD USA, became the latest major U.S. grocer to join the Fair Food Program and commit to protecting farmworker’s rights.

Mr. McMullen, you continue to justify Kroger’s refusal to join the Fair Food Program. You say that you require your suppliers to abide by your supply chain Code of Conduct. You say that you have enough resources to conduct thorough audits of the farms where you purchase your fruits and vegetables. Yet one of your major tomato suppliers, Red Diamond, was recently fined $1.4 million dollars after a two-year investigation by the Department of Labor for labor abuses. On the list of buyers purchasing their tomatoes from Red Diamond Farms, Kroger’s name is prominent, but not a single company participating in the Fair Food Program is found.

Mr. McMullen, what will you decide?  Will you continue to purchase tomatoes from Red Diamond, putting workers and everyone else in your supply chain, including your shareholders, at risk, or will you commit to protect workers’ rights and join the Fair Food Program?

She was followed by Mr. Perez from Cincinnati, who spoke on behalf of consumers and workers in other low-wage industries:

“The Fair Food Program exists within the U.S. agriculture industry, an industry that for decades has proven to be fertile ground for exploitation.  Yet, the Fair Food Program has defied those odds and created verifiable, sustainable change for workers.  Workers who for over 30 years were receiving sub-poverty wages, workers who had to leave their dignity at home and fear sexual violence in the fields, workers who had to endure a hard day’s work without access to shade, water or restrooms, and workers who even fell victim to modern day slavery, are finally seeing a solution to these abuses.

Last year, you said, “we really do believe our responsibility is to our customers and shareholders to negotiate directly with suppliers rather than going through a third party.”

If your responsibility lies directly with customers, then why not agree to what your customers have been asking for over seven years — to join the Fair Food Program?  If your responsibility lies directly with your shareholders, then why not sit at the table with farmworkers to learn about how the program actually works, and about the solution that 14 other major buyers have already agreed to?  We aren’t asking you to create the solution.  The solution already exists.”

Confronted twice with questions to which they had no real answer, Kroger executives refused to allow the third representative, Mother Paula Jackson, to speak.  Mother Paula had the following, powerful statement prepared — a statement we share in full, since she was denied her right as a shareholder to express her deep dismay over the company’s choices:

“My name is Mother Paula Jackson of Church of Our Savior, la Iglesia de Nuestro Salvador, here in Cincinnati.  As a person of faith and a resident of Cincinnati, I am proud to lead a parish that is a Community Partner with Kroger.  As such, we are deeply invested in Kroger’s success.  

But for that success to be one that is felt across the board, it must be a success that fosters dignity for the workers who make your profits possible.  Mr. McMullen, Kroger has justified its refusal to join the Fair Food Program by insisting that Kroger’s monitors its own supply chain with its own code of conduct. As the recent, colossal Dept of Labor problems of one of your major tomato suppliers demonstrates, this claim remains utterly empty next to the Fair Food Program, an established, proven solution to decades of abuses that are finally on their way to eradication from the fields.

The front page of the New York times reported that the Fair Food Program is, “the best workplace monitoring program… in the US”, which is true, but it is so much more. Since 2011, the Fair Food Standards Council, which is the third party monitoring body of the Fair Food Program, has interviewed more than 12,000 workers, resolved over 1300 worker complaints, and audited the payment of nearly $20 million in Fair Food Premiums that have paid to Participating Growers for the benefit of workers.

Mr. McMullen, your code of conduct states a commitment to ensuring that your suppliers uphold dignity and respect in the workplace. That is exactly what the Fair Food Program is doing. How can Kroger continue to justify their rejection of the Fair Food Program, when your very competitors are working to protect workers’ dignity and respect by committing to a verifiable solution to farmworker exploitation?”

In a move that was as unsurprising as it was disappointing, Mr. McMullen gave a clipped, rehearsed response to the Fair Food delegation, barely bothering to stray from the company line from last year’s shareholder meeting:

Thank you for coming back and sharing your thoughts with us as always.  As you know, every year we audit suppliers and we have a strict vendor code of conduct, and if somebody violates it, we stop doing business with them.  Point blank.  And we’ve done that in the past, and we will do that in the future.  When you look at the Immokalee region, progress has been made with suppliers and a lot of that progress is due to the work of your organization.  However, we believe that it is our responsibility to our customers to negotiate directly with our suppliers, versus a third party.

The backdrop for this response was stark: One of Kroger’s suppliers just recently underwent a two-year DOL investigation that resulted in $1.4 million in labor violations.  In light of the fact that this key supplier “willfully disobeyed federal labor laws and exploited vulnerable, low-wage workers” on Kroger’s watch, Mr. McMullen’s response begs several questions:

  1. Does Kroger actually audit its suppliers every year, and in such a way that would produce a transparent, accurate picture of conditions on the farm?
  2. If Kroger did indeed audit Tomato Thyme every year, why were the massive labor violations clearly taking place on the farm not unearthed?
  3. If they were unearthed, why is Kroger still prominently listed as a customer of Tomato Thyme in the DOL press release?

And perhaps the most important question of all:  If Kroger’s goal is to have a transparent supply chain in which they cut purchases off from suppliers who routinely disregard the basic human rights of their employees, why not join the Fair Food Program — hailed as “the best workplace-monitoring program” in the United States on the front page of the New York Times?

The harsh reality is that Kroger, if they had been participating in the Fair Food Program, would not have been purchasing from Tomato Thyme at the time of the DOL investigation, because Tomato Thyme is not a participating grower in the FFP.  Instead, in the wake of the highly-publicized abuses at Tomato Thyme, Kroger’s yearly audits and “strict” policy of cutting purchases have lost any shred of credibility they might have once had.

With a ranking as the 3rd largest retailer on earth, a commitment to invest $4 billion in the expansion and renovation of their stores, a lucrative line of organic groceries, more and more competitors joining the FFP, and now massive labor violations in their allegedly transparent supply chain, one has to wonder what is holding Kroger back?  Seven years ago, when Kroger was first asked to stand with farmworkers and end labor exploitation in their supply chain, the company’s reasons for refusing the offer were weak, at best.  Today, they are nonsensical.  

The only real remaining question is how long it will take the supermarket chain to pull its head from the sand.  When it does, we will be waiting.