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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



IS THE INDUSTRY SERIOUS ABOUT LABOR STANDARDS?
New Charter For Responsible Labor Practices Lacks Rigor,
Won’t Raise Standards, Ensure Compliance Or Make Buying Easy…
California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Offers A Stronger Model

Back in 2014, Richard Marosi of the Los Angeles Times wrote a piece titled, Hardship on Mexico’s Farms, a Bounty for U.S. Tables, that shook the industry. We analyzed the article in a piece we titled, DAMAGING LOS ANGELES TIMES ARTICLE ABOUT MEXICAN LABOR, Though Incomplete And Unbalanced, Puts Retailers And Receivers On Notice: In A Transparent World, Retailers In America Are Now Responsible For Their Supply Chains. A Big Question: Will Improved Conditions For Laborers Lead To Less Employment?

As a result of this LA Times article and its aftermath, PMA and United decided to form a Joint Committee on Responsible Labor Practices with the goal of congealing a “global approach to responsible labor practices and consistent expectations among trading partners and the public.”

We assessed this effort and tried to identify a path forward in a piece titled, Does Anyone Oppose Responsible Labor Practices? PMA/United’s Joint Initiative Will Have To Navigate A Difficult Path Between Shielding The Industry And Actually Trying To Improve The Lot Of Laborers. In that piece, we specifically pointed to similar efforts that had been introduced in the clothing and textile industries and had urged careful attention to these efforts.

For example, we pointed to a program such as this:

Perhaps a better model for the produce industry might be Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, or WRAP:

WRAP was formed out of the desire to create an independent and objective body to help apparel and footwear factories around the world verify that they are operating in compliance with local laws and internationally-accepted standards of ethical workplace practices. We trace our origins back to the mid-1990s when reports surfaced of sweatshop-like conditions in numerous apparel factories around the world, including excessive working hours, unsafe conditions, and the denial of several legally-mandated benefits to workers.

Recognizing that such a scenario could jeopardize the apparel industry as a whole, the American Apparel Manufacturers Association (now the American Apparel and Footwear Association) moved to coordinate an industry response to the issue. A task force was formed which received input from a variety of stakeholders including brands, suppliers, NGOs, academia, and government officials. Based on their findings, the task force recommended the creation of an independent third-party organization free of government or corporate influence that could identify and reduce the prevalence of sweatshop conditions in factories around the world. The first Board of Directors was named in 1999, and WRAP was officially incorporated in 2000.

Recognizing that the program’s credibility depends on ensuring objectivity, WRAP is specifically organized to be independent — both financially and in terms of governance — of the apparel industry. This starts with the make-up of its independent Board of Directors. Although the apparel industry is represented on the Board to provide insight and perspective, by charter the majority of the Board is comprised of individuals not affiliated with the industry. Further, structurally, WRAP is not set up as a membership organization (yet, despite receiving no income from dues, memberships or government grants, WRAP is financially sound, with its revenue being generated entirely through facility registration fees and training revenues).

Today, WRAP has grown to become a global leader in social compliance and a trusted independent supply chain partner for dozens of companies around the world. Its comprehensive facility-based model has made it the world’s largest independent social compliance certification program for the apparel/textile industry (according to a 2010 UNIDO Study, Making Private Standards Work For You, WRAP is the “standard most often cited” for social compliance certification in the textile sector). In 2013 alone, over 2,300 facilities from 50 countries participated, and there are currently around 1,900 WRAP-certified facilities, found throughout the world, employing over 1.65 million workers.

Basically, a factory gets WRAP certification, just as many factories get ISO9000 or similar certifications, and then they can offer their services to any buyer with this assurance. We could do something very similar with farms and packinghouses.

                       *******

So, now the produce associations have sent out announcements to their respective members, United here and PMA here announcing an Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices.

The details can all be found here:

More information, including the Charter, Measurement Criteria, Guidelines for Responsible Purchasers, an Employer Self-Assessment Tool, and information packet for potential endorsers is available at www.ethicalcharter.com.

Here is the actual charter:

We believe that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. We are committed to respecting workers’ rights and protecting their safety and health, while recognizing the cultural and legal differences found throughout the industry and the world. As an industry, we care about the wellness, respect and safety of the workers who help us offer the wide variety of fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers consumers enjoy.

The guiding values and principles set out in this Ethical Charter provide a framework for coordinated, focused action across the industry. When growers, labor agencies, packers, distributors, foodservice operators, marketers and retailers of fresh produce and flowers work together to assure ethical working standards, everyone in the supply chain benefits and consumer confidence in our products is enhanced. Responsible labor practices are the right thing to do and our success as an industry depends on it.

Our Values

  • We believe that work in the fresh produce and floral industries should provide economic opportunity for all involved. Employers, workers, their families and communities should benefit financially as aresult.

  • We respect, value and encourage mutually beneficial efforts and a positive relationship between the employer and the employee, and intend to support efforts that strengthen that relationship.

  • We operate in a spirit of cooperation, learning and transparency with our workers, trading partners and other stakeholders.

  • We support transparency in our supply chains about labor conditions, policies and practices, as permitted by law, with the aim of improving the work environment and giving workers opportunities for success.

  • We seek to inspire continual learning and progress across the produce and floral supply chain, through education and an exchange of ideas and best practices in implementation of these principles.

  • We believe in accountability throughout the supply chain and among all stakeholders to deliver our shared vision of responsible labor practices. These values can only flourish because of our day-to-day behavior and actions, with each of us working within our individual area of responsibility and strengths.

Our Guiding Principles

Respect for Laws at Work:

Employment is Freely Chosen

Employers must not tolerate modern day slavery – such as forced or compulsory labor, debt bondage, involuntary prison labor or the trafficking of persons. Employers commit to a work environment where employment is freely chosen and not performed under threat, coercion, force or menace of penalty.

Freedom of Association

Employers follow applicable law regarding freedom of association and collective bargaining and workers’ equal right to refrain from such activity.

Humane Treatment and Non-Harassment

Every worker deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and should not be subject to physical, sexual, psychological, or verbal harassment or abuse, coercion, or the threat of such conduct. Employers address the need to prevent sexual harassment with education, communication and disciplinary procedures that demonstrate that such behavior will not be tolerated.

Non-Discrimination

Equal employment opportunities are respected, including respect for all individuals. Workers deserve a workplace free from unlawful discrimination in any form, where employment decisions are based only on the requirements of the job.

Protection of Children and Young Workers

Respecting and supporting children’s well-being requires employers to actively safeguard children’s interests, preventing harm at the workplace. Young people who can legally work also desire and deserve economic opportunities, but need age-appropriate work and appropriate supervision. Employers commit to prevent children and/or young workers from performing work that is mentally, psychologically, physically or socially dangerous or harmful, or that hinders compulsory education. Employers do not hire anyone below the legal age of employment or younger than 15 where no minimum employment age exists.

Respect for Professional Conduct:

Communication and Worker Protections

Direct communication between management and their employees is the most effective way of resolving workplace issues and concerns. All workers should have both the right and responsibility to voice questions, report in good faith any improper or wrongful activity, or discuss opportunities and/or grievances. To do so, there should be a fair, transparent and accessible channel of communication to provide input to management and to resolve workplace issues. Employers should encourage timely disclosure of concerns and shall prohibit retaliation against anyone who, in good faith, reports concerns.

Ethical Recruitment

Employers shall recruit workers ethically. Abusive, deceptive, fraudulent or corrupt practices are unacceptable at any stage of the recruitment and selection process. No worker should pay for a job; employers shall bear the costs of recruitment and placement. If third-party labor contractors are utilized, appropriate due diligence is performed to ensure their commitment to uphold the Ethical Charter.

Management Systems and Continuous Improvement

Employers commit to integrating sound management systems (such as policies, processes, education and training, documentation, communication and feedback channels) that sustain and demonstrate compliance with applicable labor, employment, occupational health and safety laws governing the employer. Employers should look to these systems to continuously improve performance against compliance objectives.

Responsible Purchasing Practices

Companies purchasing commercial quantities of produce and floral products understand and seek to mitigate the impact of their planning and purchasing practices on the commitments in this Ethical Charter.

Respect for Human Rights:

Employment is Freely Chosen

Employers must not tolerate modern day slavery – such as forced or compulsory labor, debt bondage, involuntary prison labor or the trafficking of persons. Employers commit to a work environment where employment is freely chosen and not performed under threat, coercion, force or menace of penalty.

Freedom of Association

Employers follow applicable law regarding freedom of association and collective bargaining and workers’ equal right to refrain from such activity.

Humane Treatment and Non-Harassment

Every worker deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and should not be subject to physical, sexual, psychological, or verbal harassment or abuse, coercion, or the threat of such conduct. Employers address the need to prevent sexual harassment with education, communication and disciplinary procedures that demonstrate that such behavior will not be tolerated.

Non-Discrimination

Equal employment opportunities are respected, including respect for all individuals. Workers deserve a workplace free from unlawful discrimination in any form, where employment decisions are based only on the requirements of the job.

Protection of Children and Young Workers

Respecting and supporting children’s well-being requires employers to actively safeguard children’s interests, preventing harm at the workplace. Young people who can legally work also desire and deserve economic opportunities, but need age-appropriate work and appropriate supervision. Employers commit to prevent children and/or young workers from performing work that is mentally, psychologically, physically or socially dangerous or harmful, or that hinders compulsory education. Employers do not hire anyone below the legal age of employment or younger than 15 where no minimum employment age exists.

So now the question is simple: Has this effort been a success?

Not surprisingly, the answer depends on how one defines success.

If the question is: Does this initiative give the industry a talking point so if accused of any issue in this area, companies can point to their endorsement of these standards and this initiative and so claim they are on the side of the good guys? Then yes, this a successful initiative.

But if we ask harder questions, the answer is less encouraging:

  1. Will this initiative actually raise the standard by which employees in the produce supply chain are treated?
  2. Does this initiative provide buyers an assurance that when they purchase from grower/shippers endorsing this initiative they will be procuring ethically sourced products?
  3. Will the initiative satisfy NGOs, journalists, government officials and others as to improvements in the produce industry's responsible sourcing practices in the area of labor?

It is important to understand that most of what this charter requires is simply obedience to current laws. There is nothing in this charter saying that companies should pay $15-an-hour minimum wages regardless of the law or anything of that matter.

Read the Wages & Benefits section of the Charter:

Wages & Benefits

Workers shall be paid for all work performed. Employers must comply with all applicable legal requirements regarding legal eligibility to work, benefits and wages (including wages for overtime premiums and/or minimum compensation for any payment arrangement based on productivity). Employers must provide leave and benefits as required by law. Payments will be made in accordance with any applicable contract terms and pay calculation shall be transparent to workers.

Now look at the list of current endorsers:

4Earth Farms
Albertsons Companies
Beachside Produce
California Giant Berry Farms
Castellini Group of Companies
Cece’s Veggie Co.
Continental Floral Greens
Costco
Crunch Pak
Del Monte Fresh Produce
Dole Food Company
Driscoll’s
Frank Diehl Farms
Grainger Farms LLC
Greenyard Seald Sweet
The Grower’s Company, Inc.
Hardie’s Fresh Foods
J & D Produce, Inc.
JV Smith
Kroger
LA & SF Specialty
L&M
Lipman Family Farms
Mastronardi / SUNSET 
McDonald’s
Metro Richelieu, Inc. 
 

Military Produce Group
Muir Copper Canyon Farms
Naturipe Farms
OAG Global Inc.
The Oppenheimer Group
Passion Growers
PRO*ACT
Raley’s Family of Fine Stores
Renaissance Food Group
Rice Fruit Company
Robinson Fresh
Sam’s Club
Smith Packing, Inc.
Southeastern Grocers
Sun World International LLC
TOR Farms Inc.
Tanimura & Antle
Taylor Farms
Tomatoes of Ruskin, Inc.
Tompak
Umina Bros., Inc.
United Potato Growers of America
Walmart
Wegmans
Wish Farms 
The Wonderful Company
Xgenex

It is a fantastic list. Many premier produce companies. But it is inconceivable that Dave Corsi at Wegmans urged suppliers to pay people under the minimum wage prior to these ethical standards!

Driscoll’s, Del Monte Fresh Produce, Dole … fantastic that they are endorsing … but we’ve read these standards and are stretching to imagine any changes in the way these companies will treat their workers that will come from this initiative.

And it is notable — because you would have thought it would be a high priority — that none of the Mexican producers mentioned in the original LA Times article are Charter endorsers:

Rene Produce
Bioparques de Occidente
Agricola San Emilio
Agricola Rita Rosario
Agricola Santa Teresa
Agricola El Povenir
Nueva Yamal

Some of these companies are now defunct, but someone else is usually farming the land. Sometimes the same people under a different name.

In other words, the whole initiative doesn’t seem focused on where the problem is. Indeed, the format of the new initiative doesn’t address the actual point of the LA Times story, which was not just that these Mexican laborers were working in poor conditions, but that the producers were merely responding to the product quality standards their customers in America impose.

On product standards and food safety, the American retailers and foodservice distributors were concerned — after all, they carried legal liability for selling unsafe product and they needed attractive produce to sell — so they demanded and verified tough standards.

While on labor standards, many American buyers were lax.

Some excerpts from the original LA Times piece:

In immaculate greenhouses, laborers are ordered to use hand sanitizers and schooled in how to pamper the produce. They're required to keep their fingernails carefully trimmed so the fruit will arrive unblemished in U.S. supermarkets.

"They want us to take such great care of the tomatoes, but they don't take care of us," said Japolina Jaimez, a field hand at Rene Produce, a grower of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers in the northwestern state of Sinaloa. "Look at how we live."

He pointed to co-workers and their children, bathing in an irrigation canal because the camp's showers had no water that day.

*****

The U.S. companies linked to Agricola San Emilio through distributors have plenty of rules, but they serve mainly to protect American consumers, not Mexican field hands.

Strict U.S. laws govern the safety and cleanliness of imported fruits and vegetables. To meet those standards, retailers and distributors send inspectors to Mexico to examine fields, greenhouses and packing plants.

The companies say they are also committed to workers' well-being and cite their ethical sourcing guidelines. Retailers increasingly promote the idea that the food they sell not only is tasty and healthful but was produced without exploiting workers.

But at many big corporations, enforcement of those standards is weak to nonexistent, and often relies on Mexican growers to monitor themselves, The Times found.

In some low-wage countries, U.S. retailers rely on independent auditors to verify that suppliers in apparel, footwear and other industries comply with social responsibility guidelines.

For the most part, that has not happened with Mexican farm labor. American companies have not made oversight a priority because they haven't been pressured to do so. There is little public awareness of harsh conditions at labor camps. Many farms are in areas torn by drug violence, which has discouraged media coverage and visits by human rights groups and academic researchers.

**

At Agricola El Porvenir, also near Culiacan, workers were required to disinfect their hands before picking cucumbers. Yet they were given just two pieces of toilet paper to use at the outhouses.

***********

It is hard not to see in this initiative a confirmation that the industry is not prepared to treat labor standards with the same seriousness it treats food safety. Following the 2006 Spinach Crisis, the industry created the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

Let us look at how differently this initiative was structured:

1. The Standards

These had very little to do with what was the legal minimum requirement. The whole point of the standards was to demand a higher standard than what was legally required.

In contrast, the Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices does little if anything to raise standards.

2. The Audit

Having created the LGMA standards, those who elect to join agree to be audited by State Inspectors in California.

In contrast, producers who endorse the Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices are not audited for compliance with its standards.

3. The Consequences

Major buyers agreed to constrain their supply chain and only purchase California Greens from companies that agreed to the standards and audits required by the LGMA.

In contrast, buyers who endorse the Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices have not agreed to constrain their procurement to producers who have endorsed its standards — much less required third-party audits to confirm adherence to its standards.

In the end, one has to endorse an effort like this simply because something is better than nothing. But nobody should have any illusions: This effort is thin gruel indeed.

Next time some producer somewhere in the world is caught mistreating employees — an incident almost guaranteed to happen — this initiative will not protect the industry. In fact, the industry will be more culpable because it endorsed an initiative that clearly was not going to solve the problem.

We should relook at the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production organization and move the initiative in that direction, specifically including the following points:

  1. The standards need to be developed and endorsed with cooperation from non-produce organizations: NGOs, academics, etc. This is how the industry builds allies! Then the adequacy of the standards is far more difficult to attack.
  2. Whether it is a freestanding audit or added to a different audit, the whole thing is of little value if a buyer can’t quickly check vendors to make sure they conform to the standards. And when a report such as the LA Times piece happens again, distributors, retailers, foodservice operators and the reputation of the industry as a whole will all be in a far stronger position if they can point out they were buying produce audited for being produced in accordance with an agreed fair labor standard.
  3. The initiative must be one where buyers are willing to constrain their supply chain to those producers who are audited and are in conformance with the new responsible labor initiative.

Anything not done with the seriousness of the California Leafy Greens Initiative will come back to haunt the industry.


 

 

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