The next time you have a craving for fast food, you should think twice about going to Wendy’s, according to representatives from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Alliance for Fair Food. Many field workers who pick the tomatoes consumed at Wendy’s chains are routinely abused, and the chain refuses to act, they said. Lupe Gonzalo Mendez from the CIW and Roxy Rozo-Marsh from the AFF spoke about these abuses and the fight for workers’ rights and called for action at the Brandeis Labor Coalition’s ’DEIS Impact event “Boycott Wendy’s: Why and How” Feb. 3. Rozo-Marsh served as Mendez’s interpreter during the speech.

For decades, workers have faced much abuse and have not been guaranteed their promised wages, according to Mendez. There were many instances of modern-day slavery, where workers were “forced to work against their will with no pay,” she said. It was difficult to handle abuse cases because workers often did not report mistreatment for fear of possible threats against themselves and their families. In the 1990s, however, field workers began to fight for protection against salary theft and sexual, verbal and physical abuse, Mendez explained. Workers took action with strikes and tried to negotiate better conditions and fair pay, but growers refused to engage with them. The workers, however, had already organized themselves, so they took their fight to fast food corporations. 

The CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food started in 2001, according to Mendez, and laid out farm workers’ demands for a fair working environment. It argued that fast food chains should pay a penny more per pound of food they purchased from growers, which would be paid directly to workers. The campaign also aimed to create a code of conduct allowing workers to report abuses without fear and enacted a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and modern-day slavery. 

First targeting Taco Bell, the CIW organizers sought allies in student and faith groups and led the four-year “Boot the Bell” campaign to boycott the restaurant until it met the workers’ demands. In the beginning, Mendez said, people thought organizers were “crazy” to believe that they could negotiate with large corporations like Taco Bell. Then, workers “started showing consumers … the kind of abuses [they] were facing” and encouraged consumers to demand “just food” from corporations. After strong financial pressure from the boycott, Taco Bell signed the Fair Food agreement. 

The CIW’s CFF waged similar successful campaigns against other fast food chains and food service providers, including McDonald’s, Burger King and Sodexo. The strength of the campaigns led growers to choose between “respecting the rights of workers or losing millions of dollars,” Mendez said. By 2010, 90 percent of Florida tomato growers had signed the agreement, according to Mendez. 

The AFF, a partner organization of the CIW, started the Fair Food Program in 2011, which included worker-to-worker education, which entails workers educating workers about their rights and a complaint hotline for reporting abuses. Companies under the Fair Food Agreement are required to register all workers under a grower and guarantee them a minimum wage. Before programs like the FFP, growers were not liable for worker abuses occurring on their farms, which made it difficult for abused workers to pursue justice. For workers, the FFP is important because they “don’t have to give up [their] dignity just to provide food for [their] families,” Mendez said. 

While the AFF and CIW have decreased worker abuse, Mendez asserted that “thousands of workers who are not on Fair Food farms continue facing these kind of exploitation and abuse.” Thus, the workers have continued to put pressure on corporations to combat these injustices. Wendy’s, for example, is refusing “to face that there exists exploitation in its supply chain,” Mendez said. Wendy’s has not acknowledged the problems broached by the boycott, nor has it signed the Fair Food agreement. This explains the event’s title, a call for customers to “Boycott Wendy’s.”

In an interview with the Justice, Mendez stated that Wendy’s is particularly reluctant to sign the Fair Food agreement because they believe they are already doing enough for workers. The chain has a code of conduct for its suppliers and buys tomatoes from farms where workers work in greenhouses which provide shade. Workers, however, were not involved in writing the code of conduct. Giving workers shade is not enough, Mendez said, as that “doesn’t mean that they have human rights.” The workers, she declared, “don’t just want shade, [they] want dignity.”