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Farmworkers marched through Palm Beach, urging Wendy's chairman to end 'modern-day slavery' on farms

Lupe Gonzalo wears a United Farmworkers shirt and stands outside with other protestors.
Wilkine Brutus
/
WLRN
Lupe Gonzalo, a former farmer and one of the leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, protesting on April 2. Farmworkers marched through the Town of Palm Beach on Saturday afternoon to urge Nelson Peltz, board chairman of Wendy's, to join the Fair Food Program.

Farmworkers came from across the state to march with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers through the Town of Palm Beach on Saturday afternoon. They were there to urge Nelson Peltz, board chairman of Wendy's, to join the Fair Food Program —an initiative in the tomato supply industry to improve labor standards and to protect and educates workers about farm labor abuses, such as wage theft and sexual harassment.

Chants in Spanish could be heard from blocks away: “Nelson listen. We’re in the struggle,” and “No justice, no peace.”

Between 400-500 people took part in the march. The farmworkers were joined by supporters, artists and faith communities. They called on Pelts, who owns a home on the wealthy island, to follow suit with nationwide companies such as McDonald’s, Whole Foods and Walmart.

Organizers say a new code of conduct agreement would help “end modern slavery in the fields.” Lupe Gonzalo, a former farmer and one of the leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said she wants to “guarantee human rights as dignity for workers.”

Melody Gonzalez is an advocate with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. She helped translate during our conversation with Lupe Gonzalo in Spanish.

“It's so important for consumers to be aware of workers rights,” said Gonzalo. “When they think about the food that's on their table, think about 'Where does this food come from? Under what conditions was this food harvested?' Maybe there was slavery behind this food that they were enjoying?’"

Gonzalo, a Guatemalan mother of two, says she has worked in the agriculture industry for 12 years, picking tomatoes, apples, blueberries and other crops. Unfair work conditions is “an experience lived by farmworkers for decades here in the United States,” she said.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers also protested in front of Wendy’s offices in New York. Peltz’ hedge fund, Trian Partners, is Wendy's largest shareholder.

“We want Wendy's to join the fair food program so that we can continue to expand this program. Sometimes we're not aware of some of the abuses that are happening because there isn't a mechanism for workers to report those problems to,” said Gonzalo. “But we know that these are abuses that are left every day in the fields. But this program ensures that there's protections for workers against those abuses.”

On a makeshift stage at Bradley Park, near the Flagler Memorial Bridge and Cocoanut Way, current and former farmworkers and performers shared their testimony through speeches, traditional music and poetry. A live theater play reenacted common abuse seen on farms.

“We want to lift the floor for workers, for working class people all throughout the state,” said Santra Denis, Executive Director for Miami Workers Center, an organization that advocates for tenants and domestic workers.

“We're going to target corporation by corporation, county by county to make sure that people have a living wage, that they have benefits, that they can take time off when they have children, and that folks are respected in their full dignity.”

Denis says she's a child of a Haitian domestic worker and understands the plight of farmworkers.

"Many times when people think about farmworkers, they have one picture. But we know that many folks—African Americans have stories about being sharecroppers," said Denis. "Haitians are out here—they’ve worked the lemon farms in Miami, early in the 80s and 90s."

"We also know that there are folks from Mexico, Central America, South America who are also working the fields as well. So it’s not just one group. It’s many folks put together to ensure that we have food on our tables.”

Screen Shot 2022-04-04 at 4.47.39 PM.png
Wilkine Brutus
/
WLRN
Current and former Farmworkers with Coalition of Immokalee Workers and other supporters marched through the Town of Palm Beach on Saturday afternoon, April 2, 2022. They urged Nelson Peltz, board chairman of Wendy's, to join the Fair Food Program.

Wendy's say it’s not in the Fair Food program for a reason:

In a statement to WLRN, Wendy's says its company “does not participate in the Fair Food Program because there is no nexus between the program and our supply chain.” Wendy's public statement also claims that their code of conduct and social audits are an efficient way to prevent labor abuse.

Organizers say Wendy’s corporate code of conduct and its social auditing measures aren't enough to help protect workers from labor exploitation or give them a voice.

“Now it's very easy to go to a farm and ask if everything is OK, if other conditions are fine. And the growers, of course, are going to say that there's no problems there,” said Gonzalo. “But with the Fair Food Program, there's a third party monitoring system that actually works, and so they are able to go and make sure that the program is being implemented as it should.” Gonzalo says the Fair Food Program has implemented a 24-hour hotline that operates seven days a week, where farmworkers can call and “someone will speak to them in Spanish and Creole, English and several Indigenous languages.”

“And it's not an answering machine, it's actually a person that they can speak to and voice their concerns about.”

Gonzalo says the initiative also ensures that the workers will not face retaliation from employers for expressing their grievances. Wendy’s says it also sources its North American tomato supply from indoor, hydroponic greenhouse farms only, and that the Fair Food Program tends to operate in outdoor, conventional tomato growing environments.

But organizers say human rights protections are not specific to a type of harvest. Wendy’s could bring their food operations into the Fair Food Program, which would urge Wendy’s to purchase tomatoes from growers who follow strict working standards. Organizers say joining the initiative could also boost wage pay for workers, as corporate buyers, such as Taco Bell, often pay a “penny per pound” price premium for Florida tomatoes.

The Food Standards Council publishes annual metrics on how the program is implemented.

“How beautiful would it be that they brought their suppliers into the program, because we're actually expanding to other crops too,” said Gonzalo. “It's not just limited to tomatoes in external fields.”