… And the supplier’s history is not pretty: Bioparques was the subject of a massive slavery prosecution in 2013.
Harper’s Magazine released an explosive new article this week in its online pages that did some digging into Wendy’s tomato supply chain in Mexico, and what Andrew Cockburn, Harper’s Washington Editor, found out was in fact quite disturbing.
[Unless you haven’t visited this site in a while, you’ll recall that Wendy’s stopped buying tomatoes from Florida altogether following the implementation of the Fair Food Program here and shifted its purchases to Mexico. Wendy’s decision to abandon its Florida suppliers was one of the principal reasons for the national boycott launched at the start of the recent Workers’ Voice Tour.]
Here’s an excerpt from the Harper’s story, entitled “Trump’s Tomatoes”:
… Only one major fast-food enterprise has refused to join [the Fair Food Program]: Wendy’s.
For a period, the company, which is controlled by hedge-fund billionaire Nelson Peltz’s Trian Partners, adopted the P.R. gambit of telling consumers, via its website, that it didn’t need to join the program because it was already buying from Fair Food Program growers. Left unmentioned was the fact that it was not paying the workers their penny a pound, nor did it agree to buy only from program-affiliated growers. This subterfuge did not last long. In early 2015, the C.I.W. stepped up pressure on the errant firm to mend its ways, fomenting a campaign for consumers to call its headquarters and demand that it sign on to the program. But Wendy’s now had a ready response. Caller after caller was informed that the company’s strictures were beside the point, because the firm was not buying any tomatoes from Florida at all. Again, the devil was in the omissions, because winter tomatoes for the North American market can only from three places: Florida, Canada, and Mexico.
So which alternate supplier would a corporation too mean to shell out an extra penny a pound in Florida choose as substitute—Canada or Mexico? Clue: Canadian tomatoes are three times as expensive at retail as Mexican tomatoes.
The Kaliroy Corporation, headquartered in Nogales, Arizona, with offices in McAllen, Texas, and Los Angeles, is the U.S. distribution arm of the major Mexican tomato grower, Bioparques de Occidente, which, according to the Los Angeles Times, produces up to 6 million boxes of the red fruit each year for the U.S. market—an enormous operation whose expansion has been fueled in part by a $17 million loan from the World Bank. As Kaliroy confirmed when I called, they are one of the suppliers to Wendy’s.
Bioparques workers who spoke to Times reporter Richard Marosi for an investigation published December 10, 2014, described subhuman conditions, with workers forced to work without pay, trapped for months at a time in scorpion-infested camps, often without beds, fed on scraps, and beaten when they tried to quit.
Although such reports raised eyebrows among some of the firm’s American customers, Wendy’s continues to buy some of its tomatoes from Mexican suppliers. “Walking away from the most effective human-rights program in the food industry into an industry where human-rights violations are endemic and unchecked,” C.I.W. co-founder Greg Asbed told me, “is not only indefensible but immoral.” read more
The Harper’s article speaks for itself. But for a bit more context on the Bioparques slavery case, here below is a short news video from 2013:
We also wrote on two separate occasions about the Bioparques case in these pages, once in 2013 when the story first broke and then again in 2014 following the Los Angeles Times exposé that delved deeper into the outrageous abuses there. Both posts are valuable reflections on the endemic nature of human rights violations in the Mexican produce industry and the near total lack of effective mechanisms — and the powerlessness of Mexican workers themselves — to address those violations, much less to prevent them.
What this latest revelation means…
At this point, there can be little doubt that the Florida tomato industry is light years ahead of Mexico when it comes to social responsibility and the protection of farmworkers’ fundamental human rights. It will take years, perhaps even a generation, for the Mexican produce industry to catch up, and that only if Mexico is first able to address the underlying societal ills of deeply-rooted corruption and hyper-violence born of its pervasive drug wars. Mexico must rebuild a functional civil society before it can make any credible claims to verifiable social responsibility in its massive produce export industry.
Another article that came out this week in the food justice online news site Civil Eats (“Tomato Workers Call for Wendy’s Boycott After the Chain Shifts its Sourcing to Mexico”) cited a recent US government report listing Mexico “as one of three countries known to harbor exploitive labor practices in tomato fields.” That report is issued by the US Department of Labor’s International Bureau of Labor Affairs, which describes its mission on the USDOL website in these words:
ILAB maintains a list of goods and their source countries which it has reason to believe are produced by child labor or forced labor in violation of international standards. The List is intended to raise public awareness about child labor and forced labor around the world, and to promote and inform efforts to address them. A starting point for action, the List creates opportunities for ILAB to engage and assist foreign governments. It is also a valuable resource for researchers, advocacy organizations and companies wishing to carry out risk assessments and engage in due diligence on labor rights in their supply chains.
It is, indeed, a noble mission. But by nearly any objective measure, in deciding to shift its purchases to Mexico and abandon Florida after growers here chose to partner with the CIW and implement the Fair Food Program on their farms, Wendy’s moved its supply chain from the most widely-respected source for socially responsible tomatoes in this hemisphere to one of the most widely-reviled. Clearly, the words “carry out risk assessments and engage in due diligence on labor rights in their supply chain” from the ILAB report have a very different meaning than what one might expect when it comes to Wendy’s.
Or, as the CIW’s Gerardo Reyes put it that same Civil Eats article:
Speaking after a recent rally in the affluent West Palm Beach, Coalition organizer Gerardo Reyes referenced Wendy’s circumvention of the program as a direct affront to human rights: “They have been taking advantage of our community for years and years, and when the community finally created a working solution to the labor abuse in the fields, they go to exploit workers somewhere else.”
In other words, in the case of Wendy’s, it would appear that “due diligence on labor rights” points in the direction of fewer protections and worse abuses, not the other way around.
And that is why we boycott…
After 15 years of organizing with consumers to demand respect for farmworkers’ fundamental human rights, we do not take the idea of calling for a national boycott lightly. In fact, given the unprecedented success of the Fair Food Program in protecting workers’ rights, and the ever-growing recognition of that success, we had hoped that boycotts would have become a thing of the past by now. And indeed, many of the most recent retailers to join the FFP came to the program of their own volition, without protest, drawn by its unique ability to eliminate the risk of human rights violations, and therefore negative publicity, in their supply chains.
Wendy’s, however, has chosen a different route. Wendy’s has chosen to continue to profit from farmworker poverty while its competitors do their part to alleviate it, to turn its back on the Fair Food Program while its competitors choose to embrace it, to approach social responsibility as public relations by other means, a way to deflect public scrutiny rather than to prevent human rights violations.
This week’s article in Harper’s digging into Wendy’s supply chain in Mexico only underscores that stark gulf between Wendy’s and the more forward-looking food companies that are participating in the Fair Food Program today. Indeed, the Harper’s article only underscores why we have no choice but to boycott Wendy’s.