Royal Ahold Executives Sidestep the Call for Fair Food — Again!

At annual shareholder meeting in Amsterdam, Ahold executives insist CIW representative “speak English” when asking question on behalf of farmworkers, continue to reject “the best workplace monitoring Program in the U.S…”

Farmworkers from Immokalee have been knocking on the door of Amsterdam-based Royal Ahold — the international supermarket corporation that owns Giant Supermarkets and Stop & Shop in the U.S. — for years now, asking for the chance to work together to protect the human rights of the workers who pick Ahold’s tomatoes.  While the global supermarket giant has dragged its heels, its grocery sector competitors Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Walmart have all joined the growing partnership for Fair Food, and the CIW’s program has gained universal praise for having helped re-shape the Florida tomato industry from “being the worst to the best” employer for farmworkers in the U.S.


Never ones to shrink in the face of rejection, the CIW crossed the sea once again last month to present their case to Ahold executives and shareholders at the company’s annual meeting and, once again, they were met with a mix of arrogance and indifference.

Company executives rolled out the same list of tired myths of corporate social responsibility they recite every year — the supposed fairness of the market pricethe claim that corporations are equipped to monitor their own supply chainsthe argument that standards alone can enforce workers’ basic rights — a list that grows ever more insipid with every new retailer that joins the Fair Food Program and every new observer that recognizes its unique success in eliminating generations-old abuses.  

But there were a couple of new twists to Ahold’s position this year (including an uncomfortable moment during which the Ahold board acted out a gratuitous display of what can only be called xenophobia), so we wanted to share with you a report from the delegation that traveled to the charming city of Amsterdam, including our thoughts on Ahold’s mysterious new language in its otherwise stock response to the Campaign for Fair Food.

As shareholders arrived at the luxurious Muziekgebouw for the day’s activities they were met by a group of Dutch Fair Food activists that joined forces with the CIW delegation, bringing homemade signs and informational packets — including copies of an editorial in support of the Fair Food Program that ran that very morning in Holland’s leading financial journal, the Financieele Dagblad.  In addition to longtime allies, such as members of Fair Food International, the Dutch group included professors and students that traveled to Amsterdam all the way from The Hague’s International Institute for Social Studies. 


Inside, the meeting began with the CEO Dick Boer’s opening statement – which included some strangely familiar language, complete with a rolling slideshow of photos of tomatoes in the aisles of Ahold supermarkets:

And it’s not just food safety that’s important to us. At Ahold, we are fully committed to offering our customers products that are produced fairly and under safe conditions. We carefully select and monitor our suppliers, and require them to adhere to Ahold’s Standards of Engagement. These standards require suppliers to treat their employees fairly, with dignity and respect and in accordance with all laws and regulations. To ensure that our suppliers are compliant with our Standards of Engagement, we meet with them on a regular basis to review their activities.


Yet, when it came time for questions, Ahold treated CIW representatives there on behalf of the thousands of workers who harvest their products with anything but respect.  Shortly after beginning his statement, the CIW’s Lucas Benitez and his interpreter were abruptly interrupted by the Chairman with a demand that Lucas himself speak English in making his statement.

In response to the interruption — which raised more than a few eyebrows in the multi-lingual meeting — Lucas reminded the Chairman of why he was there in the first place:  “The thing is the farmworkers who pick the tomatoes you sell in the United States speak Spanish.  The profits that you all make are thanks in part to those of us who speak Spanish.”  Unmoved, the Chairman insisted that the statement be made in English or not at all.

Following that lovely new twist on the company’s nearly decade-old disdain for the workers who pick its tomatoes, the CIW gave its statement in English, and Ahold gave the same, tired answers it has given year after year.  Here is an excerpt from the Chairman’s response:

… Each of the tomato suppliers we work with in the Immokalee region of Florida has adopted the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) Fair Food Code of Conduct (through their membership in the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange) as well as the Ahold USA Standards of Engagement. We are committed to investigating any reports thoroughly and taking any appropriate action promptly. 

The CIW has an open line to Ahold USA’s companies to immediately share any information they receive about the mistreatment of workers by any of our suppliers. Since our suppliers in the region adopted the Fair Food Code of Conduct in 2010, the CIW has not informed us of any instances of mistreatment.

Ahold USA is committed to paying a fair market price for tomatoes from Florida suppliers, but Ahold USA does not directly negotiate wages with our suppliers‘ employees. However, we have taken note of recent developments in the way that CIW is reaching agreements. We will review and discuss this with the relevant food industry trade associations as well as our suppliers.

Ahold USA will continue to be a responsible retailer and engaged member of the communities we serve.

But the grilling of Ahold executives did not end with the CIW’s question.  Peter Sabonis of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative followed, demanding true transparency from Ahold and challenging its unilateral, uncorroborated claim to be buying only from growers in good standing with the Fair Food Program.  And Dr. Karin Astrid Siegmann of the International Institute for Social Studies in The Hague followed with a powerful critique of Ahold’s refusal to partner with workers in its social responsibility efforts (Dr. Siegmann is second from right in the picture below of the CIW delegation taken just ahead of the meeting).  Here’s an excerpt:

For the past 15 years, I have undertaken research about corporate social responsibility (or CSR) initiatives and their effects on workers’ labour conditions. On that basis, I have bad news and some good news for you.
The bad news is that a large number of studies have questioned the effectiveness of business-driven CSR initiatives. Impacts of CSR initiatives on core labour rights such as freedom of association, freedom from discrimination and the payment of a living wage have been considered weak or absent. This has recently been confirmed by a study commissioned by the World Bank, an international financial institution that does not have the reputation of being a labour rights advocate.
Here is the good news: I have been involved in research myself that shows that CSR initiatives can be successful if they put workers’ agency at the centre.
The Fair Food Programme of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a prime example of such an initiative in which workers have had a key role in the design and implementation. It has been evaluated independently, showing improvements in farmworkers’ wages, health and safety and successes in eradicating sexual harassment, among other advances.
This must be contrasted with Ahold’s own efforts.  In the past you spoke about your participation in the SAFE program, a business driven initiative that was exposed as empty and ineffective and you spoke about the protection of US laws, which, however, do not allow farmworkes to unionize.
Now you talk speak about your “own Standards of Engagement.”  What will you speak about next year? 

When will Ahold decide to put its commitment to responsible business conduct into practice by joining the FFP?

Ahold’s response?  Our Standards of Engagement are “not a paper exercise.

Yet as Ahold’s rejection of the Fair Food Program grows more inexcusable with every passing year, it becomes increasingly clear that the company’s commitment to true social responsibility is, in fact, paper thin.

But that may — may — be changing.  The final new twist on Ahold’s response to the CIW’s intervention this year at the annual shareholder meeting is the bit of new language contained in their official statement.  If you take a close look at the company’s April 15, 2014, “Statement on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers” (quoted above), there is a new “however” clause that, while inscrutable, may, as the Dutch financial journal Financieele Dagblad suggested, open the door to talks in the months ahead.  Here’s that passage again:

Ahold USA is committed to paying a fair market price for tomatoes from Florida suppliers, but Ahold USA does not directly negotiate wages with our suppliers‘ employees. However, we have taken note of recent developments in the way that CIW is reaching agreements. We will review and discuss this with the relevant food industry trade associations as well as our suppliers.

Do these new words represent a ray of hope, a crack, however small, in the uniform callousness exhibited by the company to date?  Might Ahold be rethinking its position, now that Walmart’s participation has put a lie to industry claims of effective self-regulation?  Will Ahold finally make that call to the CIW, signaling that it is ready to join the ranks of responsible 21st century companies? 

Only time, time that is now passing Ahold by, will tell.  We’ll keep you posted.