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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!

$3.5 million judgment closes books on yet another forced labor case in Florida’s fields…

Newest case marks ninth forced labor operation brought to justice by CIW’s Anti-Slavery Program since 1997, demonstrates enduring perils of fields beyond the reach of the Fair Food Program…On February 10, a Federal District Court Judge in Ft. Myers, Florida, ordered Reyes Tapia-Ortiz, a crewleader for Clewiston, FL-based C&C Farms, to pay $3.5 million dollars in damages to five farmworkers from Mexico and Guatemala.  Last year, the court found that Tapia-Ortiz had, “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 […]

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DONATE TODAY: Help fuel the Return to Human Rights Tour!

$10,000 to traverse 2,000+ miles:  We need YOUR help to send CIW members on the upcoming human rights tour!In just one month, we will be packing up the protest art, finalizing last-minute details, and loading luggage and precious supplies onto a bus parked in the evening light outside of the CIW’s community center in the small, dusty town of Immokalee, Florida.  That bus will carry CIW members and allies northward — and with them, the tour’s urgent demand for respect for human rights in the fields where Wendy’s tomatoes are picked — as they embark on a 2,000-mile trek through more than a dozen U.S. cities for the Campaign […]

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Off Broadway… in Immokalee!

Popular education theater brings home message of courage, resilience in Immokalee…Each and every Wednesday — since the founding of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in the early 90’s through the intervening 25 years, without pause, to last night — farmworkers have gathered at the CIW center in Immokalee for the weekly community junta.  Across those countless meetings we have parsed the challenges of life in the fields, discussed the ebb and flow of U.S. and international politics, and reflected on the moments that have defined the last two decades of our history.  And to facilitate these community conversations, we have often turned to the medium of […]

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MUST-SEE Super Bowl Adbust: Farmworkers expertly take down Wendy’s $5 million “Cold as Ice” commercial!

Facebook, Twitter blow up with Fair Food version of Wendy’s big Super Bowl ad buy! $5 million for 30 seconds of Super Bowl airtime could fund more than 5 years of fairer wages and humane working conditions for workers picking Wendy’s tomatoes through the Fair Food Program… In the event that you were watching the Super Bowl yesterday, you may have caught Wendy’s 30 second ad that aired shortly before halftime.  The ad emphasized two aspects of Wendy’s concerted strategy to re-invent its public image: an emphasis on “quality” ingredients and a cheeky Twitter game.  In case you didn’t catch it the first time, […]

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A Tale of Two Roadside Farm Stands…

Or why Wendy’s is not like you.And why you should join us for the Return to Human Rights Tour this March 16-29!Join us, if you will, in a brief thought experiment: What would you do if you were in the market for some fresh tomatoes and you happened upon a roadside farm stand — an idyllic, pastoral produce stand, its shelves piled high with fruits and vegetables picked fresh in fields right next door — selling red, ripe tomatoes at a great price?You’d stop in a heartbeat, right?  Who doesn’t love farm fresh produce?But what if, while you’re standing at the cash […]

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European governments take note of Fair Food Program’s power to resolve longstanding human rights conflicts…

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) publishes brief on Fair Food Program in quarterly magazine…In an effort to provide a forum for economic cooperation and reduce tensions during the height of the Cold War, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was formed in 1975 in Helsinki, Finland.  Since then, it has expanded to include 57 member states — including the US — from Europe, Central Asia, and North America.  Today the OSCE has grown to become “the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization” with a mandate that includes “issues such as arms control and the promotion of human rights, freedom of the […]

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Birth of an American Human Rights Movement?…

CIW members join 4.8 million women, men and children in marches across the country — and around the globe — in resounding support of human rights for all! As you have almost certainly heard, this past Saturday was an historic 24 hours, not only in hundreds of cities across the U.S., but on every single continent across the globe.  Millions of men, women and children poured into the streets of Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, London, Nairobi, New Delhi, Singapore and over 650 other cities to declare that people of the world would not allow the growing (and terribly misnamed) “populist” movement, rooted in fear and repression, […]

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter…”

Today, women, men and children across the country’s 50 states are marching to celebrate the life, the promise, and the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  As we begin this new year, it feels with each day that passes that we as a country are approaching a dangerous crossroads.  Down one road, a deeply uncertain future awaits us, a future in which longstanding norms and principles are lost, and rights and progress are threatened.  Nothing better captures that looming possibility than the astoundingly obtuse and shamefully crass disparagement of one of this country’s few true, living heroes, Congressman John Lewis, on the eve of the very […]

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ANALYSIS: Lofty goals… or empty promises?

First draft of new industry-led initiative charts uncertain course toward “responsible labor practices” in US produce sector…Brief: There’s nothing like the “power of the purchasing order” for turning standards on paper into reality on the ground when violations of a code of conduct occur, and there’s nothing resembling that sort of market consequence with real teeth — yet — built into the produce industry’s recently released “Ethical Charter.”  Genuine, informed worker participation and real enforcement mechanisms will be imperative going forward if this new initiative is to have any hope of success in bringing meaningful human rights protections to the US and Mexican […]

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UN expert: FFP “must be considered an international benchmark” in fight against modern-day slavery!

United Nations Human Trafficking expert lifts up CIW’s Fair Food Program following fact-finding tour of US anti-slavery efforts…Nothing like starting off the new year on a positive note!In her official End of Visit Statement issued late last month, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur in Trafficking in Persons, Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, made special mention of the CIW’s Fair Food Program for its exemplary results in the prevention of modern-day slavery.  Here is an excerpt from her statement, issued through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:Washington DC, 19 December 2016 – I am grateful to the Government of the United States of America […]

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SAVE THE DATE! Return to Human Rights Tour announced for March 16 – 29, 2017…

Wendy’s Boycott to take national stage from March 16-29, 2017, with whirlwind tour across Midwest, Southeast…Pull out your calendars, Fair Food Nation, it’s time for Wendy’s — and the nation — to return to human rights!  Today, we are announcing the dates of the CIW’s big spring action, the annual event that has become the hallmark of the Campaign for Fair Food for nearly two decades, from the first Taco Bell Truth Tour in 2001 to next spring’s Return to Human Rights Tour.  From March 16th to 29th, 2017, CIW members and their allies will embark on the longest protest action in the last 10 years of the Campaign for Fair Food, joining […]

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The arc of the moral universe is still ours to bend…

As fundamental human rights take the national stage following Tuesday’s electoral results, the battle for farm labor rights continues…Rio Grande Valley, Austin, San Marcos, San Antonio take the call for farm labor justice to Wendy’s doorstep!Before we begin today’s update, a word on current events:“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”We have had occasion to quote those words, attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, many a time over the 25 years that we have been organizing here in Immokalee.  The quotation reminds us that, though at times it might seem that progress has grown unbearably slow […]

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Fair Food Program receives highest recommendation in newly released evaluation of seven food justice certification programs!

Fair World Project — a project of the Organic Consumers Association, the nation’s largest network of green and ethical consumers — releases powerful new report looking into the standards, enforcement, and impact of best-known certification programs…The CIW’s Fair Food Program received the highest recommendation in a new study of seven of the leading certification programs in the country carried out by Fair World Project, a project of the Organic Consumers Association.  The report “strongly recommends” the Fair Food Program, along with the Agricultural Justice Project, “for their strength in key areas as well as for their involvement of workers in all levels of the […]

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