Carli Cosenza: The truth behind your sandwich

Monday, April 9, 2018 - 5:11pm

Carli Cosenza

Carli Cosenza Buy this photo

Imagine this. It’s lunchtime. You’ve just had a busy morning of class and now have an hour before your next lecture. Since you’re feeling hungry, you decide to walk to the Michigan Union to grab a bite to eat. Stomach grumbling, you head downstairs to the basement, which has a variety of fast-food options. You’re in the mood for chicken, which is perfect because there’s a Wendy’s right past the bottom of the stairs. You walk up to the register and place your order: a spicy chicken sandwich ($4.69), medium-sized fries ($1.99) and a small soft drink ($1.69). The total amount that you pay for your meal adds up to approximately $8.37. Pleased by the low price and quick service, you walk away excited to eat, oblivious to the fact that the price you just paid for your meal is more than a worker’s daily wage at the farm where Wendy’s gets its tomatoes.

Two weeks ago, nearly 100 farmworkers and their allies held a protest in New York City outside the office of Trian Partners. Nelson Peltz is the chairman of the Wendy’s Board of Directors and CEO of Trian Partners, Wendy’s largest shareholder. The protesters stood outside Peltz’s office for five days, during which they fasted to call attention to the human rights abuses toward farmworkers that have been occurring for decades in the Wendy’s supply chain and protested the fact that Wendy’s hasn’t signed a binding Fair Food Agreement.

Wendy’s is one of the five major food corporations in the United States, along with fast food forerunners like McDonald’s and Burger King. On its website, the company boasts about its workers: “From our headquarters to the amazing employees in every location, we like to think of Wendy’s as a big family.” However, the reality of how Wendy’s treats its employees — specifically the farmworkers who produce the company’s supply of “hand-chopped tomatoes” — is astonishingly different. It is time that consumers boycott Wendy’s.

Now, imagine something different. You’re 14 years old, living in one of the poorest regions of southwestern Mexico. According to Mexican law, you’re too young to be employed. But the law doesn’t apply to you because the only thing that matters is that you are meeting quota. Who are you? You’re a farmworker in a labor camp for a company called Bioparques de Occidente, which is a major tomato grower. It produces as many as 6 million boxes of tomatoes for the U.S. market each year and is also a supplier of tomatoes for Wendy’s. That’s right, the same tomatoes that are found on a spicy chicken sandwich.

As a farmworker in the labor camp, you sleep head-to-toe with other workers on concrete floors. You’re forced to protect yourself from scorpions and bedbugs. Each morning, you receive a stack of tortillas that is supposed to last you throughout the day, which will be spent picking, sorting and carrying heavy buckets of tomatoes in 90-degree heat. You have to work quickly. If you don’t fill a minimum of 60 buckets with tomatoes, then you will not receive your pay for the day, which is 100 pesos, or the equivalent of approximately eight U.S. dollars. Conditions are miserable. You just want to be at home playing with your siblings. But you cannot stop working or attempt escape from the labor camp because you’re afraid of what your bosses will do to you. Last week, another field worker asked for extra tortillas for her children and was threatened with a slap from her boss. The memory — and fear from witnessing the threat — is still fresh in your mind.

These are the conditions that hundreds of farmworkers have been forced to live under for decades, as major American corporations like Wendy’s have outsourced their labor costs to camps like Bioparques de Occidente in other countries. In 2014, a federal investigation was launched against Bioparques de Occidente after a successful escapee reported the abusive conditions to authorities. The company was found to have violated health and labor laws and was ordered to pay a $700,000 fine.

Once information from the investigation reached other field workers and farmers across North America, they decided to take action and form the Fair Foods Program, which is composed of farmers, farmworkers and retail food companies. The widely-acclaimed, uniquely successful organization seeks to raise awareness about and provide humane wages and working conditions for farmworkers, along with giving them a representative voice. The FFP has received recognition from major organizations and its efforts were even recognized by the White House in 2013.

Today, the FFP has partnered with almost all of the major food retailers and fast food restaurants, including Chipotle, Burger King, Trader Joe’s, Subway and McDonalds. But not Wendy’s. In fact, in response to pressure to join the FFP, Wendy’s retaliated. It abandoned its longtime Florida tomato supplier and shifted its purchases to Bioparques in Mexico in support of a work environment derived from fear, violence and corruption. Furthermore, Wendy’s released a modified supplier code of conduct that contains “no effective mechanisms for worker participation or enforcement,” despite Bioparques’s proven history of human rights violations.

In October 2016, Wendy’s released a statement regarding its relationship with Bioparques: “We are quite happy with the quality and taste of the tomatoes we are sourcing from Mexico.” But what about the quality of life for the workers who picked the tomatoes with their bare hands so that consumers across the continent can enjoy a spicy chicken sandwich that costs the equivalent of a day’s salary?

Personally, I can’t eat a sandwich knowing that the process to make it consciously violates human rights law. I cannot eat tomatoes that were picked by the hands of an underage child in a labor camp that doesn’t even provide beds for its workers. Furthermore, I cannot support a company that knowingly perpetuates human rights abuses in order to have a cost advantage over its competitors. And I cannot support a company that’s board of directors has the information and power to end the violent conditions forced upon its farmworkers but refuses to take meaningful action to end it even though a viable solution (the FFP) is right at its fingertips.

The five-day fast in Manhattan was only a small fraction of the hunger pains felt by Wendy’s farmworkers at Bioparques de Occidente labor camp. But as consumers, we can make an impact too. If enough informed consumers boycott Wendy’s, then maybe the Board of Directors will be forced to acknowledge the inhumanity of their behavior. It is time for Wendy’s to follow through with its “big family” ideals. Until then, I boycott Wendy’s, and I think that the rest of us should too.

Carli Cosenza can be reached at carlic@umich.edu.