July 7, 2016

Responsible Labor Standards

In December 2014, the Los Angeles Times published a series of articles exposing widespread labor abuses on some Mexican farms that supply produce to the United States.  This type of “investigative journalism” often ignores positive examples that would lessen the dramatic impact of the negative ones, and that may have been the case here.  Nonetheless, the Times series was alarming and, for the American companies that purchase from these farms, it was reminiscent of similar exposés of mistreatment at foreign factories supplying American retailers everything from clothes to toys.  For activist groups, the stories provided new leverage.

Not surprisingly, the large retailer and restaurant buyers of fresh produce are seeking to inoculate themselves from further criticism.  We’ve seen this before.  Several years ago, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) emerged in Florida following critical media coverage of wages paid to tomato harvesters in that state.  With its Fair Food Program, the CIW has effectively used protests, boycotts and strikes to motivate buyers to adopt their social responsibility agenda.  Retailers like Subway, Whole Foods and Walmart now impose a human rights-based code of conduct on many Florida farms.

More recently in the West, the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) has emerged as a developer and verifier of labor standards for farmworkers.  The organization is now moving to entice, or pressure, key supermarket and restaurant chains to recognize EFI certification as a condition for their preferred suppliers.  To date, nine farms covering 3,000 workers in California, Washington, Mexico and Canada are EFI-certified, with 10 more farms pending certification.  At least one major retailer has so fully embraced EFI that it recently introduced Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers union, to the company’s produce suppliers with the message that the suppliers would need to work with the UFW to become EFI-certified. (A UFW vice president is chairman of the EFI executive board.)

No one would argue that producing safe food, ensuring a safe work place and treating workers fairly, are noble aspirations and should be standard practice for all farmers.  I am confident these principles already guide the operations of our members wherever they farm.  Beyond the progressive and strict federal and state labor rules governing the employer-employee relationship in the United States, our members recognize that they are bound by a higher moral law that requires vigilant attention to worker safety and social justice.  And they act to ensure both are achieved.

Our members have faced a proliferation of third party audits relative to food safety, and while we know these are costly and sometimes questionable pursuits, our growers have endured.  So why not embrace another third party “certifier” like EFI?

As I noted earlier, the EFI’s chairman is a UFW vice president.  This cannot be glossed over.  The UFW represents a tiny fraction of the farmworkers in the West, and their attempts to force thousands of farmworkers into a union the workers didn’t vote for, and would have likely decertified but for a union-allied state Agriculture Labor Relations Board, speaks to the reality that workers are well-compensated, treated fairly and resent being forced to give up 3 percent of their pay to the union for nothing.  The UFW is also in financial distress, as evidenced by their repeated pleas to the California Legislature to use taxpayers to bail out their union health plan.  Along comes the EFI, and a chance for the UFW to employ a top-down strategy to infiltrate our farms and our employees.

Don’t believe me?  This is from The Bakersfield Californian’s coverage of the UFW’s recent convention: “Under what’s called the Equitable Food Initiative, the farm worker union is partnering with some of the biggest names in the retail food industry to improve the lives of the people who pick and pack produce consumed here and abroad.”  I added the emphasis to highlight the fact that UFW President Arturo Rodriguez intends to go global, and plans on leveraging the EFI to do so.

While none of the EFI-certified farms are currently unionized, UFW National Vice President Erik Nicholson was quoted in the same article as saying, “I truly believe there are EFI farms that will go union.”

In light of all this activity, the boards of directors of PMA and United Fresh have formed a Joint Committee on Responsible Labor Practices.  This committee has been tasked with evaluating appropriate worker treatment across the supply chain, “potentially leading to an industrywide, global approach to responsible labor practices.”

We recognize the significance of this committee and support PMA and United Fresh in their effort to develop higher standards for foreign producers, where labor laws and practices are nowhere near as rigorous or consistently enforced as in the United States.

However, we have some reservations about the process and its potential outcome for domestic growers. The Joint Committee initiative is co-chaired by executives from supermarket and foodservice companies; Western Growers and other grower-centric organizations were excluded at the outset.  I have spoken to Tom Stenzel and Bryan Silbermann, the presidents of United Fresh and PMA, respectively, and I am encouraged by their commitment to take our concerns seriously and to work with us to avoid unintended consequences. Still, it seems likely that buyers will ultimately determine the outcome.

All of this is to say we believe organizations representing domestic growers must lead this effort on the domestic front.  To that end, the Western Growers Board has directed our staff to promote domestic standards for responsible labor practices with a particular focus on the Western states.  Working with other organizations we will base our standards on a foundation of existing federal and state regulations, which already create the most stringent worker protection system in the world.

Our intention is to promote a farmworker labor standard reflective of the best practices currently in place by growers in California and other Western states.  We believe this approach will most efficiently facilitate confidence in the domestic supply chain and provide buyers (and their critics) with adequate assurances that their U.S.-grown fresh produce is responsibly sourced.