Buyer beware… or not…

A case of slavery, a buyer’s silence, and the Fair Food Program…

In our last post, we shared the news of last week’s $3.5 million judgment against Reyes Tapia-Ortiz, a crewleader who was sued for, among other things, having “engaged in forced labor and related offenses by brandishing a gun, threatening to harm and deport workers for complaining about conditions and not being paid for all their work at legal wages, sexually harassing a female worker, and falsely imprisoning then facilitating the deportation of a worker who stopped working for him,” according to Susan French, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs on the case.  You can read more about the judgment and the conditions on the farm here.

Tapia-Ortiz worked for C&C Agricultural Farms, a mid-sized grower located (until it went out of business some time last year) in an isolated area outside of Immokalee known as Devil’s Garden: 

C&C Agricultural Farms was also named in the suit, and a Naples Daily News story from 2014 described the charges against the farm and its director, Ernesto Ruben Cordero, at the time:

The allegations against Cordero are dated from October 2009 and early 2010, when two of the plaintiffs worked for the company. The lawsuit says Cordero threatened and yelled obscenities and racial slurs at them and other workers. When accusing workers of not picking fast enough or missing vegetables, he would lift his shirt to expose his pistol, the lawsuit says.

“Between January 2010 and May 2010, during work hours in C&C Farms’ fields, Cordero threatened in Spanish that he could ‘kill a worker and simply leave the body in a ditch,’” the lawsuit says. Another time Cordero raised and shook his gun in the air while threatening harm to any worker who scratched his truck while they were removing work tools, the lawsuit adds.

When one of the female workers complained about not being properly paid, Cordero told her it was not his problem, according to the lawsuit.

C&C settled with the plaintiffs in early 2015.

Slavery in the supply chain?…

If you’ve ever shopped at BJ’s Wholesale Club, the Costco-style grocery chain found in most states along the East Coast, you might recall the name C&C Agricultural Farms from advertising around the company’s “Farm to Club” program, BJ’s own locally-grown produce program.  Here’s BJ’s Facebook update announcing the program:

BJ’s Wholesale Club is excited to announce Farm to Club, our locally grown produce program. The 2012 program has kicked off in Florida. Check out the specially marked Farm to Club produce selection, labeled with the above seal (right). Members can get locally grown, fresh-from-the-farm green peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes, corn, eggplant and green beans.

Sounds delicious, and virtuous, until you dig a bit deeper.  Here’s BJ’s description of one of its two listed Farm to Club partners at the time, none other than C&C Agricultural Farms:

Meet the Grower:

C & C Agricultural Farms – C & C Agricultural Farms in Miami Lakes, FL was started in 2008 with sweet potatoes and pumpkin by Ernesto Cordero (right) and Carlos Rodriguez. The two friends met many years ago when Carlos was involved in real estate and actually sold Ernesto and his family their first home. Ernesto reached out to Carlos on the heels of selling a 200 acre farm in Clewiston, FL with hopes to expand in a new space. Alas [sic], C & C Agricultural Farms, a “Fresh From Florida Farm,” was born! Today the business has grown to include tomatoes, jalapenos, eggplant, squash, cucumbers and bell peppers. Ernesto and Carlo take pride in working with their team to provide just the right amount of care to grow and high quality produce. The pairs’ personal favorites are zucchini, served fried, and stuffed peppers.

For their part, Cordero and C&C Farms were also pleased with the partnership.  From a separate article on the Farm to Club program:

Clewiston’s C&C Agricultural Farms is one of two farms providing produce to BJ’s stores in Florida. C&C Agricultural Farms was established in 2008 by Ernesto Cordero and Carlos Rodriguez and, with the help of Robinson Fresh, has been providing produce to BJ’s stores since 2011.

“Robinson Fresh and C&C Agricultural Farms appreciate the opportunity to work closely with a large retailer like BJ’s Wholesale Club on such an expansive local produce initiative, as well as providing consumers the most local, fresh produce that Florida has to offer. The companies are excited to continue to collaborate as the relationship expands and the program grows,” said Drew Schwartzhoff, director of marketing, products and services at Robinson Fresh.

You can lead a horse to water, but…

An auditor from the Fair Food Standards Council conducts an interview with workers on a participating tomato farm in Florida.

Surprised?  As were we, so in October of 2014 we wrote BJ’s a letter to inform them of the situation at C&C and to invite the chain to join the Fair Food Program, which at that time was already in its fourth season and had established a strong track record of preventing just this sort of abuse on participating farms.  Here’s an excerpt from that letter:

… The benefit to your company [of joining the FFP] is not merely the satisfaction of operating in an ethical manner. Rather, the FFP operates as a powerful risk detection and avoidance mechanism that protects your brand from being associated with the type of conduct alleged in a recent lawsuit filed against C&C Farms. For your convenience, we have attached a copy of an Aug. 31, 2014 article from the Naples Daily News about the case. While C&C proudly touts its association with BJ’s, we cannot imagine that your company is proud to be associated with the type of conduct alleged in the attached article.

That type of conduct used to regularly besmirch the reputation of Florida’s largest tomato growers until the vast majority of them, representing well over 90% of Florida’s total production, but not including C&C, joined the Fair Food Program in 2011. Since then, there has not been a single allegation of the sort of abuse that is described as having occurred at C&C. This is because the FFP provides the best form of brand protection possible. It roots out and prevents conduct that can come back to cause substantial reputational harm to companies like yours.

We of course do not know what other actions you may choose to take in light of the very serious allegations against C&C, but joining the Fair Food Program would be an easy and proven way to insure that BJ’s is not associated with conduct like this in the future.

Care to guess how BJ’s responded?

Well, if you guessed “They didn’t,” you win.  BJ’s never wrote, never called, never responded in any way shape or form.  Only silence.

And so once again, just as Publix did before it when faced with reports of forced labor in its supply chain (“If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business”) and Wendy’s after it (“We are quite happy with the quality and taste of the tomatoes we are sourcing from Mexico”), a major buyer turned a blind eye to egregious labor abuses in its supply chain and turned its back on an invitation to join the Fair Food Program. 

Instead of joining the Fair Food Program and stepping up to the highest human rights standards in the agricultural industry, BJ’s decided to hide in the darkness, hoping, perhaps, that consumers would pay more mind to their advertisements of “locally grown, fresh from the farm” produce than to the reality of how that produce was grown and picked.  

And so it goes.  While fourteen major food retailers have joined the Fair Food Program and are doing their part to help improve wages and working conditions for the farmworkers in their supply chains, many more have not.  Yet.

First among that many, of course, is Wendy’s, the hamburger giant that has not only refused to join the program, but actually chose to abandon their Florida growers when the Florida tomato industry decided to join in partnership with the CIW and implement the Fair Food Program.  That’s why we are heading to Wendy’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio, next month in the big Return to Human Rights Tour:

Click here to see how you can join us!