Wendy’s boycotters to go hungry for Fair Food

Last week, Wendy’s released a retooled “Supplier Code of Conduct,” revamping its purchasing policies on a range of issues from food safety to animal welfare to labor rights. And the timing is probably not a coincidence. This month marks the one-year anniversary of a national Wendy’s boycott, one focused specifically on labor issues in the company’s supply chain. To mark the occasion, activists will stage two weeks of demonstrations in the chain’s home state of Ohio—culminating in a weeklong fast in front of its Dublin, Ohio headquarters.

The effort is an attempt to urge Wendy’s to sign on to the Fair Food Program (FFP), a celebrated supply chain certification designed to reduce farmworker exploitation in fruit and vegetable production. Since 2005, many of the country’s largest food companies have signed on—from chain restaurants like Subway and McDonald’s, to retailers like Whole Foods and Wal-Mart. Among the very biggest fast food companies, Wendy’s is the final holdout.

“That would be like us asking our customers to pay for their food, and then adding another fee to go to our employees.”

What’s keeping Wendy’s from signing the agreement? In a post on its “Square Deal” blog, chief communications officer Liliana Esposito told it straight: it’s about the money. A key provision of the Fair Food Program, and one of its main bones of contention, is the extra penny per pound certificate holders must pay their supplier for produce—a sum that goes directly to farmworkers in the form of a bonus. According to Esposito, that’s too much to ask.

“We don’t believe we should pay another company’s employees—just as we do not pay factory workers, truck drivers or maintenance personnel that work for our other suppliers,” she writes. A pull quote in the blog posting (one not actually included in the text itself) puts it more plainly: “That would be like us asking our customers to pay for their food, and then adding another fee to go to our employees.”

Meanwhile, to ensure workers are being treated fairly, the new code of conduct promises that “suppliers of certain fresh agricultural products harvested by hand or in an otherwise manually intensive way will be subject to third party human rights and labor practices reviews,” presumably by the Quality Supply Chain Cooperative—which sounds like a stodgy, third-party auditor, but is actually owned by Wendy’s.

The pain and power of fasting are familiar to us, and we know from experience that it is no small sacrifice.”

The code of conduct of Wendy’s is one that doesn’t have weight,” says Santiago Perez, a member of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW), the farmworker advocacy group that launched the FFP in 2011. “It’s one that shows to the public through advertisements that they purport to care about the rights of farmworkers in their supply chains—without having the enforcement and participation of workers that is necessary in order to have a true code of conduct to really make a difference in workers’ lives.”

Beyond not giving the extra penny per pound, Perez says Wendy’s new code of conduct differs from the FFP in other significant ways: there are no mechanisms that allow workers to organize and report abuse, such as the 24-hour complaints hotline that the FFP stipulates; there are no independent, third-party audits; and there is no legally-binding agreement that the company stop doing business with an offending supplier until any proven issues are addressed.

The protest will take place March 16 – 29, at the Ohio State University and at Wendy’s Dublin headquarters. It’s part of CIW’s “Return to Human Rights Tour,” a 14-city action that will seek to draw attention to the plight of farmworkers. According to Laura Kington, a member of Ohio Fair Food and an OSU alumna, several hundred out-of-towners are expected to join with protestors in Ohio. Kington says the weeklong fast, which will take place from March 20 – 26 is a “way to show that solidarity with farmworkers, many of whom have had to go hungry while harvesting the food that we as consumers end up eating”—and has a long history in farmworker activism, from the days of Cesar Chavez to more recent CIW protests.

“The pain and power of fasting are familiar to us, and we know from experience that it is no small sacrifice,” Perez says. “Right now there is always an empty seat at our table for Wendy’s to come sit with us.”  

Joe Fassler is The Counter's deputy editor. His reporting has been included in The Best American Food Writing and twice nominated for a James Beard Media Award. A 2019 - 2020 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he's the author of two books: a novel, The Sky Was Ours (forthcoming from Penguin Books), and Light the Dark: Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.