Ahold: Worker-Centered Accountability Requires Penny Per Pound

Ahold shareholders seemed as irritated as its Executive Board during last month’s visit by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to the company’s annual general meeting.  After hearing repeated challenges from CIW, the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) and Dutch human rights activists to join the UN acclaimed Fair Food Program for Florida tomato pickers, a shareholder took the floor and suggested that the resources spent by CIW to visit Amsterdam should have been used on “local authorities” who oversee workplace violations.

The CIW are the local authorities.  And Ahold’s partnership is necessary to improve and extend accountability.   

Caught in a legal world that historically made U.S. agricultural workers non-persons deprived of the rights to organize, overtime pay, and the safety and health protections provided to most U.S. workers, the CIW has forged an innovative alternative structure to hold Florida’s growers (the tomato pickers’ employers) accountable.  Workers joined with consumers and faith communities to create a movement powerful enough to bring about a model initiative, one requiring growers and retail giants to recognize the inherent human rights of workers in Florida’s tomato fields.  In a front-page story last month on the CIW, the New York Times said what most fail to grasp about the FFP; it goes “far beyond what state or federal law requires.” 

But the U.S. legal bar is set very low.  Workers protected by the FFP are entitled to breaks and protection from the sun.  U.S. law protecting the nation’s one million farm workers does not require this.  The FFP mandates growers collaborate with workers, by creating Health and Safety Committees, to address issues such as pesticide exposure, dangerous machinery, and unsafe drinking water.  U.S. law does not require this either.  The FFP makes farm workers the legal employees of growers, prohibiting otherwise-legal arrangements that shield employers from responsibility for the abuse of workers’ human rights.  And the FFP mandates time clocks so that time keeping and payment practices are as accurate as they are for non-agricultural workers.  Even something so basic as “clocking in and out” is not required by U.S. law for agricultural workers. 

Even if U.S. laws were amended to bring agricultural work into the 21st century, most businesses understand they have little to fear from either cash-strapped, and too often politically influenced, government enforcement agencies.

In recognition of this reality, the FFP relies heavily on an increased role for workers in monitoring and enforcement.  Through on-the-clock worker-to-worker education sessions, farm workers in FFP fields learn about the Code of Conduct, the 24-hour complaint line, and the indigenous program monitor – the Fair Food Standards Council, staffed with investigators committed solely to investigating Program complaints.  Workers have come to understand that the success of the Code depends on their own confidential complaints, and in the last three seasons they have made over 400 of them.

In one instance, a group of worker who had suffered wage theft when a crew leader unlawfully cashed their checks, called the FFSC.  Upon joint investigation with the company, the FFSC was able to get checks re-issued and the crew leader was terminated.  Once the initial callers saw that results without retaliation were possible, word spread and a total of 17 workers contacted the FFSC and recovered their compensation. 

Ahold struggles to accept this new paradigm, saying that it has its own code— its “standards of engagement”—and that its suppliers already participate in the FFP, thereby justifying Ahold’s absenteeism.  Its position is specious.  

Ahold’s one-page set of standards requires its suppliers to self-monitor and to report to Ahold any violations of the standards.  

In contrast, the FFP relies on the self-interest of all stakeholders in the Program to oil the machinery of workplace accountability.  Workers want improved standards upheld.  Growers comply with the complaint resolution process to avoid the economic consequences of retailers suspending purchases of their tomatoes.  And participating retailers want ethically sourced products (tomatoes) to meet the demands of their consumers.   This is a model that promises true sustainability.

Ahold has thus far refused to add its purchasing power to bolster this system.  And its unethical free-rider stance is combined with what it calls a “principled” refusal to pay the additional penny per pound worker premium the FFP requires: its growers already follow the Code of Conduct, and it doesn’t interfere with wage relationships between supplier and worker.  But Code compliance and wages are inextricably intertwined.

Workers cannot be active agents of workplace accountability if they are economically vulnerable.  An additional penny for each pound of tomatoes picked raises Florida tomato pickers’ earnings.  And as an increasing number of retailers enter the FFP, workplace wages will finally, after over 30 years of neglect, be pushed up to and over the poverty level.  

The poverty of workers is the primary source of worker acquiescence to human rights abuse.  Workers who live hand to mouth cannot be expected to complain when factory exits are padlocked, wages go unpaid, or sexual harassment occurs.  Complaints in these settings are economic suicide.     

A 21st century approach to workplace accountability recognizes this.  Standards, codes, audits, and laws are only as good as they are enforced.  Robust enforcement requires worker agency, and workers cannot actively participate unless they are also empowered economically.  Ahold says it supports the FFP Code of Conduct and workplace accountability process, but won’t give workers additional power to enforce it. 

Its position is self-serving and archaic.  It is time for Ahold to recognize that authorities at the bottom of the food supply chain cannot ensure human rights without the active involvement of retailers at the top.