Part Two: What is a corporation to do if it is looking to partner with a real social responsibility program?


A sign inside Wendy’s corporate headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.  While Wendy’s continues to cling to catchy slogans and a hollow code of conduct, an ever growing number of its customers are demanding that those words be made a reality in its tomato supply chain.

We concluded the first installment of this two-part series, entitled “The Enforcement Imperative at the Heart of Worker-driven Social Responsibility,” with this summary:

To be effective, any social accountability program must employ: 1) worker education about their rights and remedies, 2) a confidential, timely, retaliation-free complaint resolution mechanism, and 3) regular and thorough audits.  And all of those mechanisms must be backed by the “power of the purchasing order.” If any of those is missing, real change will not happen.

In other words, if someone is trying to sell you a car without an engine, a drive shaft, and four wheels, it’s not a car, no matter what they say.  The same holds for social responsibility.  If someone is trying to sell you a program designed to protect workers’ rights and it doesn’t have worker education, an effective and efficient complaint system, deep audits, and — most of all — economic leverage to compel compliance with the standards it claims to uphold, it’s not a real human rights program.  

And that would be sufficient as an answer to the question posed in the title line above if there were an adequate supply of social responsibility programs in the world that fit that description.  The problem is, there isn’t.  

In fact, the world of social responsibility is thick with programs designed, intentionally or otherwise, to fail at their declared objective: to protect workers’ human rights in the supply chain.  Bereft of either worker participation or meaningful enforcement power, or both, these programs sell the appearance of social responsibility — mostly through some sort of certification process based on little more than occasional audits — without the means to make it real.

And, sadly, far too many companies are happy to embrace that fiction.  Companies like Wendy’s, Publix, and Kroger prefer “self-policing” their supply chains (whatever that might actually mean in practice), or hiding behind third-party audits, rather than taking real measures to identify and eliminate human rights abuses in their supply chains.  The results of that approach are all too predictable.

This post is not written, however, with those companies in mind, companies that continue to yearn for 20th-century, Las Vegas-style social responsibility — what happens in the supply chain stays in the supply chain — even when their 21st-century customers are demanding transparency and verifiable protections for fundamental human rights.


Instead, this post is for those companies that are sincerely searching for answers to their supply chain problems but are still lost in the world of smoke and mirrors that almost entirely comprises the field of social responsibility today.  And, to their credit, there are a good deal of companies in this category.  

So what is a corporation looking for real social responsibility to do?

First, embrace enforcement…

While we here at the CIW have done our fair share of thinking over the years about how large food corporations should best protect the rights of workers who pick the fruits and vegetables they sell to consumers, we have not been alone in that endeavor.  In fact, over the course of the past decade, a very different process examining the very same question was taking place in a parallel universe far from Immokalee.  Interestingly enough, that process reached the very same conclusion about the primacy of enforcement in real social responsibility, and in doing so enshrined enforcement as one of its “guiding principles” for corporations seeking to fulfill their duty to protect human rights in their supply chains.  

In 2005, just as the CIW was establishing the fundamental principles of Fair Food in the seminal Taco Bell agreement, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed Harvard Professor John Ruggie as the UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights.  His job was to develop a global standard for the protection of human rights in corporate supply chains.  In 2008, as the vision of Fair Food continued to take shape and win more corporate partners here in the US, Ruggie presented the first product of his efforts, the “Protect, Respect, Remedy” framework, to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva for review.  After three more years, in 2011, just as the CIW was launching the Fair Food Program in the Florida tomato industry, the UN endorsed the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, the first corporate human rights responsibility initiative to be endorsed by the United Nations.


The UN Guiding Principles are founded on Professor Ruggie’s three pillars of “Protect, Respect, and Remedy.”  Within this framework, it is the responsibility of corporations to respect fundamental human rights within the broad sphere of their operations, including their supply chains, and to ensure that those who suffer abuses within their supply chains have access to effective remedy when their rights are violated.  The UN defines remedy as “both the processes of providing remedy for an adverse human rights impact and the substantive outcomes that can counteract, or make good, the impact.”

Like the Fair Food Program, the UN Guiding Principles place a definitive emphasis on enforcement, and on the mechanisms necessary to make enforcement real.  It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the United Nations has lifted up the Fair Food Program as one of the very few examples of effective remedy in the world today for human rights violations in corporate supply chains, twice inviting the CIW to speak about the FFP and its mechanisms, most recently at last year’s annual Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva.  

The UN Principles set the high bar for social responsibility at the global level.  Adopting those principles and making an explicit commitment to the enforcement-focused approach they endorse across its supply chain is the first thing any corporation looking for real social responsibility should do.

Don’t let doing something be the enemy of doing the right thing…

Having embraced enforcement as a guiding principle, the question for well-meaning corporations then becomes: How to convert the principle of enforcement into practice?  As it turns out, that is not an easy question to answer.

There is much to be done in cleaning up generations of unchecked farm labor exploitation in the produce industry, both here in the United States and abroad.  It is a daunting task, to say the least, for global corporations with wide and diverse supply chains involving hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of workers.  To make matters worse, the universe of social responsibility programs with strong enforcement mechanisms and proven track records like the Fair Food Program is distressingly small.  Given the enormity of the task and the scarcity of effective tools, the response of many companies has been to ask what might be called the existential question of social responsibility: Isn’t something better than nothing?

It is an existential question not only because it tends to divide like-minded people into hard to resolve philosophical camps, but also because so many lives in fact depend on it.  On the one hand, you have the ever-present threat of gross human rights violations, from modern-day slavery to factory fires, affecting untold numbers of workers around the globe.  Beyond posing an obvious and urgent moral imperative to address the high cost in human lives and misery they exact, those violations hang like a sword of Damocles over modern corporate supply chains, their potential discovery carrying incalculable reputational risk for the company’s brand.  Combine that reality with ever-growing consumer demand for ethically-sourced goods, and many, if not most, supply chain managers are willing to partner with any and all social responsibility programs out there, without regard to whether any given program can actually deliver on the promises it makes.  When a customer demands to know if a product was produced in fair labor conditions, or the latest slavery exposé hits the newsstand, an answer, any answer, seems better than none.  


In other words, when it comes to social responsibility, something is better than nothing, or so the thinking goes.  

On the other hand, ineffective social responsibility programs fail to protect both the workers whose lives are at risk and the interests of the corporations that partner with them.  They fail to protect the workers because their mechanisms are inadequate to detect or eliminate human rights violations.  They fail the corporations that partner with them because the unabated abuses represent a ticking time bomb in those companies’ supply chains.  Moreover, their failure has a multiplier effect, as the ineffective programs take up space in the supply chain and prevent the few successful initiatives that do exist from expanding and bringing their real protections to workers in new sectors and new places.  

In other words, sometimes doing something is even worse than doing nothing.  Sometimes, doing something — when that something is patently inadequate — can actually get in the way of doing the right thing.

Given the scope of the problem, and the scarcity of effective solutions, even the most well-meaning corporations will have little choice but to opt for something over nothing in the short-term in large swaths of their supply chains.  Where effective solutions still do not exist, they will partner with ineffective ones.  That is, quite simply, an unavoidable reality.  

To ensure that workers and companies do not get the short end of that particular existential stick, however, it is essential that corporations seeking real social responsibility begin from an explicit and clearly articulated commitment to those social accountability programs with tangible worker participation and proven enforcement mechanisms, i.e., the mechanisms spelled out at the top of this post and endorsed by the United Nations in its Guiding Principles.  

In practice, that means making an assessment of all potential partners across the landscape of their supply chain, identifying those programs with real and proven capacity to protect workers’ rights, and preferentially:

  1.  Working with those programs where they currently exist, and
  2.  Partnering with those programs to expand their footprint across the supply chain, until those effective initiatives are able to fill the spaces where ineffective programs now provide insufficient protection.  


Meaningful enforcement, or “remedy” in UN terminology, must be the North Star for corporations seeking a path from the current world of rampant and unaddressed human rights abuses toward a world where respect for workers’ dignity is the norm.  It must be the beginning and the end of their journey, even when less effective programs may be necessary while the enforcement-focused programs grow in scope and capacity.  Something is better than nothing only when it is a way station on the road to real, enforceable social responsibility, not the destination itself.


The enforcement imperative at the heart of Worker-driven Social Responsibility…

Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) — the emerging paradigm for the protection of fundamental human rights in corporate supply chains born of the uniquely successful experience of the Fair Food Program — is founded on two distinct and equally important philosophical pillars: worker participation and an intense focus on enforcement.  The former gives WSR its name and its ability to identify and uncover the abuses most urgently felt by workers themselves.  The latter gives WSR its unrivaled power to eliminate those abuses.This is the first in a two-part series about the lesser-known of those two pillars, the enforcement focus — indeed mandate — of […]

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ANNOUNCED: Wendy’s Boycott Summit, Sept. 22-25 in Immokalee!

Immokalee to host summit with allies across Fair Food network.  Join us!Save the date: This September 22 – 25, the Alliance for Fair Food, in conjunction with the CIW, is hosting a Wendy’s Boycott Summit here in Immokalee, at the very heart of the Fair Food Nation.  And you are invited!The year ahead in the Campaign for Fair Food will be a pivotal one: For only the second time in the campaign’s 15-year history, farmworkers have called for a national boycott of one of the multi-billion dollar corporations that is refusing to join the Fair Food Program.  The boycott was necessitated by Wendy’s unconscionable decision […]

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EEOC singles out Fair Food Program as “radically different accountability mechanism” in landmark report on harassment in the workplace!

EEOC Select Task Force releases high-level report, recommendations draw heavily on example of enforcement-driven FFP model with focus on education, protected complaint system, and corrective action…Once again, a government body has studied the Fair Food Program model in an effort to address an ongoing human rights crisis.  And once again, the Fair Food Program is singled out as uniquely effective at not just remedying, but preventing longstanding human rights abuses.In 2014, the Chair of the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights hailed the Fair Food Program as “a ground-breaking accountability arrangement,” after members of the Working Group visited Immokalee in the course […]

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Nearly 10,000 petition signatures supporting boycott delivered to Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor by UU General Assembly!

Unitarian Universalists from across the country hold lively picket, deliver boycott petition at Wendy’s Headquarters…From the very first day of the national Wendy’s Boycott back in March, the Unitarian Universalist community has been on the front lines of the growing fight for farm labor justice in the fast-food giant’s supply chain, launching an online petition to gather support for the boycott and joining farmworkers for actions across the country.  And just a few short weeks ago, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee officially endorsed the boycott, representing hundreds of thousands of UU members nationwide.And all that was just the tip of the iceberg.  Last week, […]

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North Carolina: “We will keep fighting until Publix comes on board!”

Scores of North Carolinians join CIW in tour of protests, delegations, to Publix across the Tarheel State… Hot on the heels of the recent Fair Food Program worker-to-worker education tour of the state, a group of CIW members and staff from the Alliance for Fair Food piled into a van last week and headed to North Carolina — this time for the Publix campaign.  Fueled by the recent announcement that key Publix supplier Red Diamond had been fined $1.4 million  for farm labor violations after a two-year investigation by the US Department of Labor, the Immokalee crew traveled north to press Publix for a response to the […]

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Unbound, national Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) online journal, amplifies call for Wendy’s Boycott…

“The church standing with us… is essential if we are to stop Wendy’s from profiting off of worker exploitation and to strengthen the human rights advances we have secured through the Fair Food Program…”It has been almost a month since the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) stood up to become the first major religious body to endorse the Wendy’s boycott — a precedent-setting move that to led to several other influential national bodies of faith to follow in its footsteps.  As anyone familiar with the Church’s long and vibrant history of working for social justice would know, PC (USA)’s endorsement was simply a beginning, not […]

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“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 […]

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CIW honored with prestigious 2016 James Beard Leadership Award!

James Beard Foundation recognizes CIW co-founders Greg Asbed, Lucas Benitez, “For their innovative work in forging a new human rights model in the food industry supply chain…”Last week, the James Beard Foundation announced that it is recognizing CIW co-founders Greg Asbed and Lucas Benitez with its 2016 James Beard Annual Leadership Award!  Each year, the Foundation, which resides at the cross section of the country’s culinary and food justice communities, “Celebrates visionaries responsible for creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable food world.”  This year, the Foundation chose six food movement leaders to receive the award.  Joining the CIW representatives in […]

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BREAKING: Hundreds of thousands of Unitarians worldwide endorse the Wendy’s Boycott!

“It is an honor to accompany such a creative and resilient movement whose influence is global and soulful…”This just in:  The Unitarian Universalist Association — representing several hundreds of thousands of Unitarians across the globe — has endorsed the Wendy’s boycott!  With yesterday’s formal announcement, the UUA becomes the third major religious body to endorse the boycott in the last month alone, following the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ.  The UUA was also joined by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a grassroots human rights organization originally founded to combat Nazi persecution, in its endorsement.  Here is an excerpt from the announcement:The […]

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Got Milk with Dignity? Vermont’s Migrant Justice putting finishing touches on breakthrough dairy program…

From Florida tomatoes to Vermont dairy, Worker-driven Social Responsibility in the spotlight at food systems summit…Last week, members of the CIW, Migrant Justice, and the Fair Food Standards Council came together for a special presentation at the 5th Annual Vermont Food Systems Summit in Burlington.  The panel, titled “Worker-driven Social Responsibility for Fair Food,” brought together two unique perspectives.  While the CIW and FFSC unpacked important lessons from their five years of experience implementing the Fair Food Program in tomato fields from Florida to New Jersey, Migrant Justice brought a decidedly more local focus to the gathering of New England food […]

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“This Program should be everywhere…”

CIW Worker-to-Worker Education Team takes human rights on the road…One week ago, as workers plucked the last buckets of tomatoes from vines here in Florida and the sun set on the state’s 2015-2016 season, CIW education team members packed a van with their bags, boxes of education booklets and provisions for a week on the road, and headed north to Georgia and South and North Carolina.  The summer of 2016 marks the second season of the Fair Food Program’s expansion out of Florida and up the east coast to six new states, from Georgia, through South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and all the way to New Jersey.  And today, as the […]

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MEDIA ROUND-UP: Commentators across the World Wide Web take Publix, Wendy’s to task!

National news outlets, social media reflect growing wave of consumer action in Fair Food movement… Between the slew of endorsements and actions in the Wendy’s boycott, and the all-too-predictable headlines revealing systemic labor abuses in the fields of key Publix supplier Tomato Thyme, the Campaign for Fair Food has received its fair share of attention across the world wide web in the past several weeks, from news articles and editorials to social media.  And as any frequent reader of this site knows, that means that it’s about time for an Fair Food movement media round-up!Enjoy!Business leader in Miami Herald letter to the editor:  “I’ve been a loyal Publix […]

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Rabbi Barbara Penzner: “What is Nelson Peltz teaching his sons at their bar mitzvah celebration?…”

Jewish blog turns up heat on Wendy’s Board Chairman Nelson Peltz for lavish bar mitzvah, even as Peltz blocks better wages, working conditions for farmworkers at last week’s shareholder meeting…Nelson Peltz is a very wealthy man, one of the wealthiest people in the world, in fact.  As Chairman of Wendy’s Board of Directors and one of the company’s largest shareholders, Mr. Peltz is also one of Wendy’s top decision makers.  And Wendy’s is the only one of the country’s top five fast-food companies to decide — in 2016, after five years of unprecedented progress for farmworkers in Florida under the Fair Food Program — […]

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National boycott takes center stage at Wendy’s annual shareholder meeting!

Consumers to Wendy’s leadership, shareholders: “It is time for Wendy’s to commit to justice and human rights — to choose meaningful and verifiable rights protections for the workers who pick your tomatoes, rather than continue to uphold a meaningless code of conduct that allows slavery to flourish…”Last Thursday, the Fair Food Nation descended on Dublin, Ohio, the small midwestern town with a dubious claim to fame: Dublin is home to Wendy’s corporate headquarters, the nerve center of one of the world’s largest hamburger chains and the last fast-food holdout from the Fair Food Program.  Last week, Wendy’s held its annual shareholder […]

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BREAKING: United Church of Christ, representing one million followers, endorses Wendy’s boycott!

“Wendy’s has turned its back on successful efforts in Florida to protect workers’ basic human rights and has moved its supply chain to Mexico where human rights abuses are rampant…”Joining the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as well as T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, the United Church of Christ has, once again, taken a stand alongside farmworkers and formally endorsed the Wendy’s boycott.  In a sweeping resolution, the UCC, which represents over 1 million worshippers in the United States, affirmed the just cause of farmworkers fighting for dignity in the fields, and condemned Wendy’s for its stubborn refusal to support those efforts.In announcing the […]

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