So now what, Sodexo? Florida farmworkers fight on for fair wages and human rights

Farmworkers confront corporate food giant Sodexo at national community food conference

by Ethan Genauer

October 21, 2009

Sodexo declares "support" for wage increase & ethical conduct,
but Florida farmworkers campaign on for meaningful commitment

"It is time for Sodexo to put their voice into action," says CIW

At the 2009 national conference of the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC), multi-national food service provider Sodexo publicly announced the corporation's willingness to support a wage increase for tomato farmworkers in Florida and to adopt a code of conduct that would protect the farmworkers from human rights abuses.

But farmworkers insist that "the campaign against Sodexo is going to continue" until the corporation follows these words with a meaningful commitment that includes a signed agreement and concrete action to implement it.

"The communication [from Sodexo] does not mean anything if there are no concrete steps toward something that is real. We hope that what they are saying is sincere, and we are open to discussions, but only if they are ready to do the right thing," said Gerardo Reyes Chávez, a spokesperson for Florida's coalition of tomato farmworkers.

Sodexo was one major sponsor of the 2009 national CFSC conference, held October 10-13 in Des Moines, Iowa. Meanwhile, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a grassroots non-union labor organization led by Florida tomato farmworkers, participated directly in the conference as plenary speakers.

CFSC describes itself as a North American coalition of diverse people and organizations working from the local to international levels to build community food security. With a diverse membership of almost 300 organizations from social and economic justice, anti-hunger, environmental, community development, sustainable agriculture, community gardening and other fields, CFSC is "dedicated to building strong, sustainable, local and regional food systems that ensure access to affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food to all people at all times."

Sodexo's public announcement of support for a wage increase for farmworkers marked one of several positive — yet so far tentative and inconclusive — steps forward that were taken during the 2009 national CFSC conference toward advancing the negotiation of a long-awaited "Fair Food" agreement between CIW and one of the world's largest institutional food service providers. In addition, scores of CFSC participants — some of whom learned about this issue for the first time — vowed to escalate their pressure on Sodexo to reach a just agreement with the farmworkers.

Farmworkers "Fair Food" campaign targets Sodexo

Together with the Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA), CIW launched their campaign on Sodexo in March 2009. By beginning to target Sodexho along with Compass Group and Aramark — all corporate giants in the food service industry — the farmworkers initiated a major new strategic phase in their ongoing "Campaign for Fair Food." The farmworkers and their student allies chose to focus their campaign on these 3 corporations because "they dominate the on-campus dining services industry through contracts with thousands of higher education institutions."

"The low-cost, high-volume purchasing practices of the food service, supermarket, and fast-food industries," SFA then stated, "help to create conditions in the fields where poverty wages and other human rights abuses flourish." By educating and mobilizing students across the U.S. to "encourage university-level support for human rights and ethical food contracting," SFA hoped to urge Aramark, Compass and Sodexo to "join in the rising tide of social responsibility in the corporate food industry."

Earlier phases of the CIW's "Campaign for Fair Food" had focused on major restaurant and grocery chains. Since 2001, CIW has reached a series of landmark agreements with Yum Brands, McDonald's, Burger King, Subway and Whole Foods that guarantee at least a penny more per pound to workers harvesting tomatoes for these companies, a human rights-based code of conduct, a collaborative effort to develop a third party mechanism for monitoring conditions in the fields, and farmworker participation in the development and implementation of these reforms.

But because the powerful Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE) agribusiness lobby had effectively threatened to levy massive fines on any Florida tomato grower who actually complied with these agreements, they were worth little more to the farmworkers than the paper they were written on. Since 2007, corporate tomato buyers have held approximately $1.5 million in escrow, until this deadlock could be broken and tomato growers would agree to pass on the negotiated wage increases to the farmworkers.

In September 2009, CIW won the first victory in the new campaign targeting corporate food service providers, when Compass Group announced that the company will pay an extra 1.5 cents per pound of tomatoes — with one cent going directly to farmworkers. But unlike previous agreements, this time there was muscle behind the pact: Compass vowed to purchase Florida tomatoes only from growers who adhere to a comprehensive code of Fair Food standards. At the same time, Florida's third largest tomato grower — East Coast Growers and Packers — announced that it would break with FTGE in order to comply with these standards, thus ensuring the emergence of a real market for Fair Food tomatoes, for the first time in American history.

While this agreement still awaits proper implementation and enforcement (scheduled to begin with the 2010 growing season) on the ground in Florida, it is already considered by many to be a milestone and turning point in the long struggle of Florida's tomato farm workers for justice and human rights. With this agreement, tomato buyers such as Sodexo and Aramark "can no longer use the excuse of not signing an agreement with us because we did not have large growers on board," said CIW leader Gerardo Reyes Chávez.

Speaking at the press conference announcing this compact, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said, "This is a great victory for the farmworkers … I hope to be a part of this partnership so that we can extend this kind of progress throughout the country…. way beyond just the agriculture arena, but also in the service sector fields where you see a lot of people of similar backgrounds being taken advantage of."

The Obama administration would provide "more incentive for these kinds of cooperative agreements to come about," Solis said. Yet weeks later, Sodexo and Aramark are still missing in action. With no public explanation for their ongoing refusal to enter serious talks with Florida's tomato farmworkers, these corporations have continued to resist joining the "rising tide" of corporate adherence to cooperative social responsibility through the negotiation of labor agreements with the employees who harvest the produce that they purchase.

Pressure on Sodexo heats up before & during CFSC conference

As a major sponsor of the 2009 national CFSC conference, Sodexo had a cavalcade of corporate executives in attendance at the event, including Vice President for Corporate Citizenship Arlin Wasserman and US Sustainability Coordinator Lashawn Barker.

“We are committed to fostering a more sustainable food system and this conference is an important source of dialogue on how to promote healthy and sustainable food choices,” said Wasserman, in the CFSC press release announcing Sodexo's sponsorship of the conference.

But can any food system be truly sustainable without fair wages and human rights for farmworkers, who provide the labor to harvest many crops — including tomatoes — that otherwise would rot in the fields? CIW believes that sustainability and justice for farmworkers are inseparable.

"Sustainability, for so long, has been an idea that mainly contemplates being organic, pesticide-free, and good for the environment," said Chávez. "The second part [of sustainability] has been humane treatment for animals. And the third part has been supporting local economies and small family farmers. All of these things are really important for us too … But sustainability is not complete if it does not include the labor issue. If there are no workers, there is nothing organic anyway."

Chávez acknowleged that while CIW has alliances with many small family farmers and agreements with two large organic tomato growers, most of the agricultural production in Florida is still conventional farming that uses pesticides. And most of the treatment of farmworkers, he said, is "very backwards," including labor conditions where farmworkers are routinely expected to continue working in the fields while farmers spray crops with toxic pesticides.

Because of this tremendous gap between the rhetoric of sustainability and the reality of farmworker mistreatment, during the week preceding the 2009 national CFSC conference, Sodexo faced a surge of scrutiny regarding its role in perpetuating inhumane labor conditions in Florida's tomato fields.

From October 5th to 9th, students across the U.S. coordinated a "Dine With Dignity Week of Action" calling on Sodexo and Aramark to "end the harvest of shame." At Wichita State University, for example, students organized a "tomato challenge" in their student union to educate peers about Sodexo's role in the exploitation of farmworkers and gathered over 1,000 signatures to a petition urging Sodexo to work with the CIW.

Also this week, the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) launched a new petition to Sodexo and Aramark condemning the stagnant wages of Florida's tomato farms that, "combined with the precarious and seasonal nature of farm labor, result in workers' sub-poverty annual earnings and create an environment where horrific forms of labor abuse flourish."

"With news of the Compass agreement with CIW," says the SLAP petition, "your companies can no longer claim that they meet the highest ethical standards." We expect that [you] will follow suit and establish agreements with CIW with all due diligence to demand those same higher standards of your tomato suppliers. Until that time, however, we have no choice but to intensify our educational efforts to inform our campuses and communities of Aramark's and Sodexo's role in prolonging Florida's harvest of shame."

Finally, as the main portion of the CFSC conference opened during the morning of Sunday, October 11th, Sodexo continued to feel the pressure. The first plenary panel discussion, titled "From Commodities to Community," asked: "Can efforts [for community food security] collectively re-shape on a large scale the nature of the industrial food system, of which Iowa is at the heart? How far can we get with our current strategy of creating market and policy openings for community-based food systems without running into roadblocks? Can the greening of corporate practices dramatically shift the nature of the food system, or is it a niche strategy?"

Unprompted by anyone else, panelist Hal Hamilton from the Sustainable Food Lab — a consortium of business, non profit and public organizations "working together to accelerate the shift of sustainable food from niche to mainstream" — shined a laudatory spotlight on Sodexo. "Imperfect as they are," he said, "Sodexo is taking tremendous strides to embrace sustainability in their business principles."

But individuals in the audience were skeptical. During the time to ask questions, several conference participants argued that Sodexo's veneer of "sustainability" is hollow without meaningful respect for labor rights and fair wages. First, a middle-aged woman spoke with concern about sub-standard wages and labor conditions that food service workers may experience in many school cafeterias, hospitals, prisons, and other institutions that contract food services with Sodexo.

Then, this journalist invited the Sodexo representatives who were present in the convention center to identify themselves. After Sodexo VP Wasserman raised his hand, the young man asked, with specific reference to the labor campaign of CIW tomato farmworkers targeting Sodexo, "What kind of responsibility does the CFSC organization and membership have to encourage a corporate sponsor of their conference to proceed with a just resolution to this dispute?"

In response, a panelist simply acknowledged, "It takes pressure from the outside along with a willingness to change from the inside in order to drive progress."

Sodexo pledges support but CIW calls for real action

With the pressure building — and the clear knowledge that their corporation could not hide from the public controversy of a farmworker campaign targeting them even at a conference that they were sponsoring — Sodexo decided to respond by reciting a conscientious-sounding statement to the participants gathered at the event.

On the afternoon of Sunday, October 11th, Sodexo VP Wasserman announced publicly from the conference podium — to a captive audience of hundreds of attendees who were seated for lunch — Sodexo's nominal willingness to "support a penny per pound increase in wages for Florida's tomato farmworkers and adopt a specific code of conduct for Florida tomato farmers." He added that "our discussions with CIW leadership has most frequently focused on how to turn an agreement in principle when no farmers are on board or few are on board into real change in Florida's tomato fields and enough farmers coming on board to help us serve 9 million people [acoss North America] a day."

Wasserman also made the disputed claim that CIW itself had asked Sodexo to postpone an agreement. "We recognize CIW's priorities are always focused on the best interests of the farmworkers in Florida's tomato fields and illegal labor practices and human rights violations are a pre-competitive issue," he said. "So we understand why CIW has asked us to hold off on finalizing an announcement and agreeing with Sodexo while they focused public attention on Compass and an agreement … with East Coast Growers."

CIW, however, maintains that this is not true, and that Sodexo has never approached them with a serious willingness to reach an agreement. "Sodexo has not come to the point of recognizing that it is time to do this in the same way that other corporations have done it," said farmworker and CIW leader Gerardo Reyes Chávez. "The excuse that they were not willing to pay to an escrow account was one of the things they were hesitant about that they mentioned to us … The ball is in their court … The FTGE is feeling a lot of pressure. If we bring more buyers that are willing to do the same thing as the others who have already signed, we are going to have more power to bring more growers to participate. So it doesn't make sense to wait until the growers change their mind. If this is about changing the agricultural industry, are you going to wait for the industry to change on its own, or are you going to do something to help that change to occur?"

Either way, while Sodexo's announcement was greeted with applause by the CFSC audience, whether — or how quickly — it will translate into meaningful action remains an unresolved question. CIW activist Chávez and supporter Damara Luce, with the solidarity group Just Harvest USA, arrived at the CFSC conference on Monday, October 12th, to express their message demanding that Sodexo not delay in putting their words of principle into action.

And, in the meantime, CIW used their opportunity at the conference to educate and interact with hundreds of CFSC members.

Speaking in two conference workshops on Monday and Tuesday as well as to the entire CFSC assembly in a plenary speech on Tuesday morning, Chávez emphasized that now is, indeed, a critical moment when serious action is needed by corporate tomato buyers such as Sodexo to help construct a solid framework of accountability and oversight in the tomato fields. By adding its weight to the drive to recruit more tomato growers who agree to adhere to the CIW demands of a wage increase and an ethical code of conduct, Sodexo can help to successfully end the systematic human rights abuses and conditions of forced slavery that Florida's tomato farmworkers presently face, as well as provide them with the dignity and security of a minimum livable wage.

In his plenary address, Chávez replied directly to Sodexo's announcement. "We are ready," he declared. "We have been ready for a long time. It is time for Sodexo to put their voice into action. Without concrete steps and a signed agreement with us, the campaign against them is going to continue. It is our hope as a community that Sodexo's comments are sincere, and that they will join Compass, Bon Appetit, and other large buyers of tomatoes who are working with us to end the harvest of shame in Florida." Hearing this, the room — filled with hundreds of CFSC participants — erupted into loud standing applause.

At this venue, however, under the glare of a grassroots community-based membership of sustainable food activists who generally have little appetite for corporate impropriety and injustice, Sodexo seemed immediately unable or unwilling to follow through with any sort of authentic sign of commitment to demonstrate their good faith in terms of moving beyond words to finally achieve a substantive, legally binding agreement with Florida's tomato farmworkers.

Not only did Sodexo fail to use the 2009 CFSC conference as an opportunity to sign or announce a pact with CIW. Sodexo also declined to send even a single corporate representative to be present at either of CIW's two workshops, through which Sodexo might have furthered a respectful dialogue or at least learned more — in living detail — about the struggles, hopes and demands of the farmworkers. And the corporation failed to arrange even one face-face meeting with a CIW leader, despite the fact that that Sodexo representatives were frequently seen mingling with other CFSC participants in the halls of the event.

CFSC grassroots become engaged with farmworker struggle

Yet if for no other reason, the 2009 CFSC conference was historic by being the first time that farmworkers were granted the opportunity to speak to the entire gathering. "This is the first year that I know of that the labor issue has had a plenary place and has been brought up to this extent," said Maria Aguiar, the Director of Global Programs with Grassroots International, who introduced and facilitated the plenary. "Farmworkers were always sort of marginal [before at CFSC conferences] and hidden in the corners."

Thus, this CFSC conference broke new ground not only by facilitating the encounter with Sodexo of farmworker advocates who were able to put direct pressure on this multi-national corporation to respond publicly to their demands. This also represented the first time — at a national CFSC venue, at least — that grassroots practitioners and activists for community food security from across the country could not avoid paying attention to the scandal that conditions of human rights abuses, abject poverty, and slavery are still prevalent among farmworkers in the fields of Florida and, more or less, across the United States.

CFSC participants were vividly reminded that — in no small part because farmworkers in the U.S. historically have been specifically and unfairly exempted from the federal right of workers to unionize — it takes the heroic, innovative and unfinished efforts of hard-working non-union organizations such as the CIW and its allies in order to ensure that the "cheap" food that millions of Americans eat every day is not tainted with blood, misery and deaths of those who labor to harvest the crops.

For a number of CFSC participants, hearing about this 21st century reality caused — or reinforced — intense emotions.

"The history of myself as a consumer," said one woman who felt proud to see a new generation of farmworkers standing up for their rights, "was shaped by Cesar Chavez saying: DON'T BUY GRAPES. I have never bought grapes in a grocery store. Thirty years later, I can't buy grapes. And now I don't buy tomatoes. When I look at the food in a grocery store, I don't know how it got there and who grew it. I can't buy food when I don't know who grew it, and that is because of the work that you [the farmworkers] do. It's so important that this gets honored in our society … and that we hear your voice and project your voice louder. It's such a proud history of struggling to make our country a better country, and we have come so far … But we have so much farther to go … There is no way in America that we can separate the history of our agriculture from the history of our Hispanic workers."

But for Mara Bacsujlaky, a sustainable communities consultant in Alaska, the presence of controversial corporations at the conference generated anger and disappointment. "I'm relatively new to this whole food issue and I'm not terribly familiar with CFSC," she said, "but I am disturbed to see that Kaiser-Permanente is a sponsor. They were implicated in the dumping [of homeless patients in Los Angeles]. It disturbs me to see Starbucks coffee here. They may be Fair Trade, but Starbucks has the worst business practices and has run … small coffee houses out of business. I don't know much about Sodexo, but now I have my strong suspicions. I have a long history in the environmental movement … What we always had to fight against was the greenwashing of these corporations, and what I see here is way worse. It's so pervasive. And this is a great conference. I've learned an awful lot, but it's very flash. I would rather sit in some little podunk room. It finally came together when I realized who all is sponsoring this. So it's just counter-productive to what we're all here talking about, and I don't understand where the disconnect is." (Author's note: CFSC Director Andy Fisher responds to these comments below.)

Another participant articulated the possibility that Sodexo could lose its place at the CFSC conference if it does not sign an agreement with CIW. "When the Sodexo Vice President spoke, the language he used twice was thanking CFSC for allowing them to be sponsors of the conference. So he might be a little conscious that we might just not want their money if they don't clean their act up," she said.

But for CIW, the hope remains that Sodexo will reflect the urgency of the issue by not waiting until the 2010 CFSC conference in New Orleans to take meaningful action. "This is a great opportunity for all of us, because we know what needs to be done. Let's take this opportunity to help Sodexo to understand," said Chávez, "that this is not a situation of a PR campaign. It's good that they are trying to contribute by sponsoring events like this. But this is part of the problem too. This has been taken [by Sodexo] as a PR campaign — trying to look good in front of people who are progressive and more open to new ideas. This is not going to go away just because they are sponsoring an event like this."

According to Andy Fisher, Director of CFSC, sponsorship of the conference by companies such as Sodexo provides overall benefits that the organization's membership and the wider food justice movement should understand and not easily dismiss. "Ironically, it is Sodexo's and other companies' sponsorship that allow us to bring farmworker panels to the conference, and more importantly to make the conference affordable — or provide scholarships — for activists and students, who are often among the most vocal critics of these relationships," he said.

"Sodexo is a valued partner in our efforts to make school, college, and other institutional meals more healthy and sustainable," he also believes. "We need to hold individual companies accountable for their practices, but perhaps more importantly we need to change the rules of the marketplace so that doing the right thing is also the easy thing."

Damara Luce, Director of Just Harvest USA, who spent years living and working with CIW in Florida, added that the question of corporate sponsorship is a "very complex" dilemma. "Over the years, many of CIW's campaign targets — Subway, Chipotle — have also given money to good causes like inner city gardens or community farms," she said. "We don't ever judge people's decisions about accepting money. But we do know that the Community Food Security Coalition itself can use can use their relationship with these corporations and the fact that they have accepted their money to put pressure on them. Please do send that letter or make that phone call. Other people have already been telling CIW, "Hey, we're going to let them know that we're really uncomfortable with this."

"That's what actually in the end is what pushes these corporations to change. Sponsoring these events is about their publicity and their bottom line. But at the same time, there are individuals in these corporations who do care about sustainability and who want to do the right thing. We need to push them to do it," said Luce

"Let's take the willingness of Sodexo to sponsor things like this and help them go forward to act on it," said Chávez.

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10/22 Update:

CFSC director Andy Fisher wished to clarify several comments appearing in this story that he called "misconceptions."

On Starbucks coffee: "We had lined up fair trade coffee donations from Equal Exchange and Green Mountain, but the convention center refused to accept them. They have a contract with Starbucks that stipulates that they are the sole provider of coffee for events. I was very frustrated to learn that fact."

On the downtown Des Moines convention center that served as the conference venue: "Frankly, there is no other venue in Des Moines that could accommodate a group of our size. We had a very knowledgeable group of people in Iowa work with us to find a venue and the convention center met our needs best."

On Kaiser-Permanente: "Yes, they were busted for dumping homeless people on the streets in LA. But they do extremely progressive and forward-looking work in sponsoring farmers' markets at their facilities, serving local food in their cafeterias, funding cutting edge community food security work, PR campaigns focused on wellness, as well as using the bully pulpit to convince other heath care providers to take on a food systems approach. It's really unfair that they be characterized by that comment."

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Do you want to let Sodexo know what you think?

Contact Sodexo Departments:

Corporate Citizenship - moc.oxedos|pihsnezitiCetaroproCASU#moc.oxedos|pihsnezitiCetaroproCASU

Community - moc.oxedos|ASU.ytinummoC#moc.oxedos|ASU.ytinummoC

Public Relations - moc.oxedos|ASU.RP#moc.oxedos|ASU.RP

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Ethan Genauer is a freelance journalist and grassroots activist for food and environmental justice. When not on the road, he lives and farms in Albuquerque, New Mexico. One of his blogs is "New Mexico Young Farmers Rise Up!" —

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