NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK — When Silvia Perez came to Immokalee, Florida from Guatemala in 1993, there was one profession that made sense: working in the fields.
“Tomato-picking is the biggest industry in Florida, and you find out about it right when you arrive,” she said. “It’s bigger than textiles or the restaurant business.”
Perez got a job on a farm in Immokalee, where she was one of five women on a farm saturated with men; she made friends with two other women at work and they stuck together. Before long, their male supervisor began following them around while they worked. One day, he compared the tightness of their clothing and encouraged Perez to wear tighter shirts and more fashionable clothes.
Perez dealt with it. With two kids to feed and minimal fluency in English, she felt that tomato picking was the best option for her in her new home.
Then, in 2008, her supervisor touched her breasts.
“He asked me if they are real or fake,” she recalled. “I was so angry.”
She remembered the incident as she protested on the streets of New York City for the past five days in support of worker protections.
Worker protections, for Perez, are more than a lofty ideal; they are actively enforced by the Fair Food Program (FFP), launched by the Coalition of Immolakee Workers (CIW) in 2011. The FFP creates a partnership between farm workers, Florida tomato growers, and participating retail buyers to enforce fair wages, worker safety, and other basic protections for farm workers through a three-pronged model: it includes worker-to-worker education sessions about worker rights that are held on the farm and on the clock, it adds a premium to the price of tomatoes that becomes a direct bonus for the tomato pickers, and it enlists the help of the third-party Fair Food Standards Council, which conducts regular audits and carries out ongoing complaint investigation and resolution.
Fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, KFC, and Chipotle have all signed on to the FFP, which means they only purchase their vegetables from farms with these protections. But Wendy’s refuses to participate. That’s what brought Perez to New York, to join the CIW in their fast and protest against the fast food chain’s refusal to join.
On Thursday, outside the Manhattan hedge fund offices of Nelson Peltz, Wendy’s largest shareholder and chair of its Board of Directors, Perez made her voice heard.
“I am here as a mother to break the silence and to end the abuse that exists where Wendy’s buys their tomatoes,” Perez said. “We’re demonstrating and we’re being joined by students, by thousands of people. And they’re on our side. They’re listening to us. They come, they show up. We hope that Wendy’s will listen. If not, we will keep showing up.”
Denying dignity to farm workers
When Perez first faced sexual assault at work, she didn’t have many options. There was no union to report to, and, throughout the 2000s, workers’ rights in Florida were quickly disappearing as then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R) dismantled the state’s Department of Labor.
Her experience was nothing new. Farm workers in the United States have long faced sexual abuse, rape, and harassment in the fields — a problem exacerbated by the fact that many of the workers are undocumented immigrants who are more easily taken advantage of by individuals in power.
So, Perez continued to put up with it. Until 2008, when she heard about a solution in the form of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grassroots organization launched in 1993 that advocates for worker justice through community organizing. In 2011, CIW started the Fair Food Program.
From the fields, Perez noticed improvements as corporations started signing onto the FFP. Water, bathrooms, and shade became available to her and her colleagues. Her pay increased. There was a system to report problems, including a 24-hour hotline that she and other pickers could call from anywhere. For the first time, she felt like she had a voice at work.
“If someone on the field had a headache, they could actually ask for a break,” Perez told ThinkProgress.
To those who have never worked in the fields, these changes may seem minor. However, they’re important enough that Perez worries about farm workers who aren’t protected by the FFP. She’s heard stories from pickers who have witnessed sexual abuse and wage theft on non-FFP-protected farms. She was horrified to read a 2014 Los Angeles Times exposé of human trafficking circles run on the Bioparques de Occidente farm in Mexico.
Perez and the rest of the CIW said their dignity should be at the center of Wendy’s transactions.
Laura Espinoza, director of the Fair Food Standards Council, the third-party organization that oversees the FFP, agreed. She called the FFP an all-around beneficial situation: buyers get transparency from their supply chain, growers oversee safe, secure workplaces, turnover among workers on farms decreases, and tomato pickers like Perez are safe at their jobs.
“It’s sustainable, it’s scalable,” Espinoza told ThinkProgress. “All it takes is buyer’s will powered by years of conscience. It’s a no-brainer to say that buyers want their food grown under just conditions.”
But according to Wendy’s spokesperson Heidi Schauer, the CIW is spreading “false and misleading information.”
In an email to ThinkProgress, Schauer focused on the FFP’s bonus program, which charges buyers one cent more per pound for tomatoes and then passes those funds directly to the pickers, like Perez.
She added that, while the CIW has consistently tried “to extract a financial commitment” from the company, Wendy’s shouldn’t be responsible for paying more so that pickers get bonuses.
“That would be like us asking our customers to pay for their food, and then adding another fee to go to our employees,” Liliana Esposito, Wendy’s chief communications officer, wrote on a Wendy’s blog.
Wendy’s says they don’t even buy tomatoes from Florida because they find better quality tomatoes in Mexico, where abuse in the fields is rampant. “We are quite happy with the quality and taste” of the tomatoes, Esposito wrote.
Wendy’s isn’t alone. Although the FFP has seen growth — since 2011, it’s expanded to include seven states, three crops, and continues to get support from the fast food industry — there’s been a steady increase in U.S. buyers sourcing tomatoes from Mexico, said Jennifer Bond, an agricultural economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It’s problematic, as the success of the FFP hinges on buyers joining. With a surplus of farms that provide cheaper — and perhaps, as Wendy’s claims, riper — tomatoes, there is a strong financial incentive for companies like Wendy’s not to sign on to an agreement that promotes human rights.
“We at the Council are able to stop abuses because we go out to the farms and say, ‘If this doesn’t stop, you will not be able to sell your produce to our participating buyers.’ That’s what Wendy’s is denying to farm workers,” Espinoza said.
She cited a 2017 lawsuit in which a female farm worker at Favorite Farms in Tampa, Florida was sexually harassed and raped by her supervisor. When she reported the incidents, she was suspended, then fired. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the farm and won the lawsuit, but Espinoza said that didn’t provide enough long-term protection for the workers on that farm.
“With the FFP, if a farm worker or grower is found guilty of sexual assault or retaliation, they are banned from all FFP-participating farms,” she said. “But that individual can work at Wendy’s. Because they’re not enforcing these basic human rights.”
“We are here to be heard”
By sunset on Thursday evening, the dozens of Immokalee workers in New York were joined by thousands of marchers. Native New Yorkers, faith leaders, workers from outside of Florida, and students on spring break from as far as Indiana proceeded in front of Peltz’s building chanting, drumming, and carrying signs urging onlookers to boycott Wendy’s, to support human rights, and to buy fair food. It was day five of the protest, and the marchers were energized as they made their way from Park Avenue to a park opposite the United Nations where the air boomed with the voices of five women on a makeshift stage who were rapping about rights and being American.
For Perez, it was gratifying to be surrounded with such a show of support. Now, she hopes that Wendy’s will finally agree to prioritize the rights of pickers like her.
“Wendy’s is supporting the problem. They buy tomatoes where respect doesn’t exist, where there are no rights for workers,” Perez said amid the noise. “Wendy’s says that tomatoes are more fresh, more delicious. But they don’t know about the life of the workers. We are here to be heard.”