It’s risky business to turn a blind eye to forced labor in today’s agricultural industry, yet here Wendy’s is…

Join us on Saturday, April 2, in Palm Beach, Florida, when we march to end forced labor and other human rights abuses in the fields! Register to march with Immokalee farmworkers here. 

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers helped launch the modern anti-trafficking movement with a series of shocking forced labor prosecutions in Florida’s fields.  Over the course of those two decades, 15 farm bosses landed behind bars, and over 1,500 workers were liberated by those groundbreaking investigations.  In 2003, forced labor was so common that, when dozens of farmworkers and their allies held a 10-day hunger strike outside Taco Bell’s corporate headquarters in Irvine, California, to demand that the fast-food giant take responsibility for human rights abuses in the fields, the hunger strikers asked this simple question: “Can Taco Bell guarantee that the tomatoes in its chalupas were not picked by slaves?” 

In 2005, Taco Bell, and its parent corporation Yum Brands became the first fast-food company to sign a “Fair Food” agreement with the CIW, laying the groundwork for a program that would ultimately emerge as the new gold standard for social responsibility in the food industry.  But the Fair Food Program wouldn’t get off the ground for another 6 years, and in the meantime the abuses continued, prompting federal prosecutors to dub Florida “ground zero for modern-day slavery.”  By the end of the aughts, following yet another major slavery prosecution discovered just blocks from the CIW’s office in Immokalee, the Fair Food Program was launched, signaling a new era for farmworkers, growers, and buyers alike in Florida’s massive tomato industry.  

And by the time the Fair Food Program was officially launched in 2011, nearly every major fast-food company in the country – Taco Bell and Yum! Brands, McDonald’s, Subway, and Burger King – had signed a Fair Food Agreement with the CIW, with Chipotle bringing up the rear in 2012.  Every major fast-food company in the country, except one: Wendy’s.

Since the launch of the FFP, the CIW and its national network of consumer allies have been calling on Wendy’s to join the program that has become, over the past decade, the undisputed leader in protecting human rights in corporate supply chains, winning countless accolades from human rights observers from the United Nations to the White House, including a Presidential Medal in 2015 for its “extraordinary efforts in combatting modern-day slavery.”  But Wendy’s, behind the leadership of billionaire investor Nelson Peltz – the Chairman of Wendy’s Board of Directors and CEO of Trian Partners, the hedge fund that is Wendy’s largest single shareholder – has refused.  

In the years since the the FFP was implemented on over 90% of Florida’s tomato fields, the Program has grown to operate in seven new states and multiple new crops, and in the process of expanding the FFP has effectively eradicated slavery for tens of thousands of workers under its groundbreaking protections.  But against that backdrop of unprecedented progress for farmworkers on FFP participating farms, modern-day slavery has been making a comeback in recent years on farms beyond the Program’s reach, both here in the U.S. and in Mexico (where Wendy’s shifted its purchases in 2015 after its longtime Florida tomato suppliers joined the Fair Food Program, and still apparently sources tomatoes despite announcing, to much fanfare in 2018, that it would return “nearly all” its tomato purchases to the US and Canada).  

Today, forced labor in the fields is not only on the rise again, it has become truly big business. 

Atlanta Journal-Constitution:“Under the threat of gun violence, some were allegedly forced to dig for onions with their bare hands… At least two people died on the job. Another was allegedly repeatedly raped…”

The drumbeat of headlines has been intense, even by agricultural industry standards.

In some cases, the scale of these latest operations is staggering.  In one prosecution alone, 24 people were arrested in an operation alleged to have affected 71,000 workers and netted the slavers over $200 million in illegal profits.  From the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

… The conspirators are accused of raping, kidnapping and threatening or attempting to kill some of the workers or their families, and in many cases sold or traded the workers to other conspirators. At least two of the workers died as a result of workplace conditions. In the Southern District of Georgia, these activities were alleged to have taken place in the counties of Atkinson, Bacon, Coffee, Tattnall, Toombs and Ware as farmers paid the conspirators to provide contract laborers.    

The conspirators are alleged to have reaped more than $200 million from the illegal scheme, laundering the funds through cash purchases of land, homes, vehicles, and businesses; through cash purchases of cashier’s checks; and by funneling millions of dollars through a casino.

Traditional corporate codes of conduct and social responsibility audits – the approach to supply chain accountability embraced by Wendy’s in rejecting consumers’ and investors’ calls to join the Fair Food Program – have not stopped these massive, sophisticated new forced labor schemes.  Instead, to lead the battle against this growing scourge at the foundation of our country’s food industry, human rights experts and U.S. government representatives alike have repeatedly singled out the CIW’s Fair Food Program as the most effective weapon for corporations looking to rid their supply chains of modern-day slavery and other longstanding farm labor abuses, and, most importantly, to prevent those abuses before they can occur.  

U.S. Department of Labor Regional Agricultural Enforcement Coordinator: The Fair Food Program “is something every grower and food retailer should be a part of.  The program’s success is absolutely undeniable.”

The abject failure of traditional codes of conduct and auditing schemes to prevent this recent explosion of forced labor is not lost on government officials and farmworker advocates.  A post on the United States Customs and Border Protection website, titled “Virtual Trade Week: Forced Labor Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs),” left little doubt about the inadequacy of the audit-based approach to corporate social responsibility:

There is ample evidence-based research that demonstrates social audits, as they are currently administered, are ineffective in identifying and reducing forced labor. Instead, more investment should be made in worker-driven solutions. Examples of how this can be achieved are the Fair Food Program and Bangladesh Accord.

Likewise, U.S. Department of Labor representatives convened a panel discussion earlier this month to address the recent forced labor prosecutions, during which Mike Rios, Regional Agricultural Enforcement Coordinator with the USDOL, made his opinion on how best to combat farm labor abuse crystal clear, saying that the CIW’s Fair Food Program “is something every grower and food retailer should be a part of.  The program’s success is absolutely undeniable.”

In short, the recent wave of forced labor operations uncovered in the U.S. and Mexican agricultural industries has left no room for doubt that it is, finally, time for a change in the way corporations address human rights violations in their suppliers’ operations.  Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, as it has been practiced for nearly three decades has failed.  Its codes of conduct — fine-sounding standards with no real means for enforcement — have proven to be nothing but empty promises, both to the workers whose rights they, in theory, aim to protect, and to the consumers whose concerns they, in fact, were designed to calm.

Meanwhile, extreme labor exploitation, from systematic wage theft and sexual assault to forced labor, has continued to grow into bigger and bigger business, and Wendy’s — by rejecting the groundbreaking Fair Food Program and relying instead on traditional corporate social certification schemes, despite well-documented instances of the social auditing industry’s failures — has continued to turn a blind eye to the growing wave of forced labor in the fields that feed our nation’s food industry.

Register now to join us on Saturday, April 2, in Palm Beach, Florida, when we march to end forced labor and other human rights abuses in the fields!  

Behind the mask of the friendly little girl with red pigtails, there is one man more responsible than any other for Wendy’s failure to join the Fair Food Program:  Multi-billionaire and hedge fund mogul, Nelson Peltz.

Mr. Peltz is not only the Board Chairman of Wendy’s – with his son at his side as Vice Chair – but also CEO of the hedge fund Trian Partners, Wendy’s largest institutional shareholder. 

And Mr. Peltz also happens to have strong ties to the CIW’s home state of Florida, in particular, to the billionaire enclave of Palm Beach.  In addition to his $123 million Palm Beach estate, Mr. Peltz and his partners at Trian are expanding their Palm Beach office – and on Saturday, April 2 the Fair Food Nation will be there to greet them!

With the spectre of modern-day slavery rising again in North American agriculture – and swirling around Wendy’s opaque supply chain as it does – it’s time to demand that the lone fast-food hold-out finally join the Fair Food Program, the new gold standard for protecting fundamental human rights in corporate supply chains.  March with us on Saturday, April 2, and help us bring Wendy’s off the sidelines and into the Fair Food Program, a critical step that virtually all its major competitors took over a decade ago.  Together, we can end forced labor and other heinous abuses in the agricultural industry, but only if the corporations with the power to do so – and the people who lead those corporations – stop ignoring the abuse and do their part.  And when it comes to Wendy’s, that starts with Nelson Peltz.

See you in Palm Beach, and stay tuned for more details on the march in the coming weeks!