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Letter to the Editor: University President Michael Drake needs to keep promises

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In January 2015, the Ohio State administration committed to end its contract with Wendy’s if the Dublin, Ohio-based fast-food chain did not join a proven solution to end the abuse of farmworkers in its supply chain and resolve the concerns of the OSU Student/Farmworker Alliance.  It was an ethical decision, the kind of decision we should take pride in as members of the OSU community. 

Where do things stand now, nearly two years later?  Simply put, as the deadline for renewing the contract between Wendy’s and OSU looms, the restaurant has done absolutely nothing to resolve the concerns that led to the administration’s promise.  In fact, the Dublin-based hamburger chain has done worse than nothing.  Since 2015, Wendy’s has steadfastly refused to join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program — a worker-driven solution to longstanding human-rights abuses in the agricultural industry that recently received a presidential medal for its singular success — despite the fact that all the other top five fast-food chains joined the FFP years ago.  Worse yet, Wendy’s decided to abandon the Florida tomato industry altogether, where workers’ rights are protected by the Fair Food Program, and shift its purchases to Mexico, where human-rights violations are endemic and continue to go largely unchecked. 

Yet despite Wendy’s willful disregard for our university’s rightful concerns, University President Michael Drake and other OSU administrators appear poised to renege on their written promise to hold Wendy’s accountable for labor abuse in its supply chain.  In fact, they have yet even to meet with OSU SFA to discuss steps necessary for ending Wendy’s contract.

In a Sept. 13 interview with The Lantern, Drake stated, “We are really good listeners.” This alluded to his administration’s attentiveness during meetings with progressive student groups about his promise to help protect the human rights of farmworkers that had purportedly taken place throughout the summer.  The only problem is, these meetings never took place.  Apparently the OSU administration does not understand that talking about meetings and actually holding them are two entirely different things. 

It didn’t start out this way.  Back in January 2015, OSU administrators responded to our concerns that, given Wendy’s track record on farmworkers’ rights, the presence of a Wendy’s in the Wexner Medical Center violated OSU’s values as an institution.  We began meeting with Jay Kasey, senior vice president of administration and planning; Geoff Chatas, chief financial officer; Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, vice president of student affairs; and Katie Hall, chief of staff, to describe the incredible transformations taking place within the agricultural industry for farmworkers through the Fair Food Program. 

We explained that farmworkers who harvest the food we buy at the grocery store or in restaurants have for decades experienced poverty wages and abusive working conditions.  But in a unique partnership among growers, farmworkers and retail food companies such as McDonald’s and Walmart, retailers who participate in the program agree to purchase exclusively from suppliers who meet a worker-drafted code of conduct, which includes a zero-tolerance policy for forced labor and sexual harassment.  As a result, this remarkable new program has eliminated forced labor and violence against workers on participating farms in a state once dubbed “ground zero for modern-day slavery” by federal prosecutors, and has greatly reduced more common abuses, such as wage theft, pesticide poisoning, and health and safety violations.  Retailers also pay a “penny-per-pound” premium, which is passed down through the supply chain and paid out to workers by their employers.  Since the program’s inception in 2011, buyers have paid more than $22 million into the FFP. 

We shared the fact that the program has been called “the best workplace monitoring program” in the U.S. on the front page of the New York Times and “one of the great human rights success stories of our day” in the Washington Post.  And over the past two growing seasons, the FFP expanded beyond Florida to tomato fields in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and New Jersey, and beyond tomatoes into two new Florida crops, strawberries and bell peppers.

During that meeting, we also expressed our grave concerns about Wendy’s abstention from the FFP and our conviction that for OSU to continue business with Wendy’s would signify complicity with the roadblock Wendy’s represents to the expansion of rights for thousands more workers.  Indeed, Wendy’s directly profits from the fact that it is the only major fast-food chain to refuse to join the Fair Food Program.  We urged OSU to accept its responsibility to support those changes through its business practices, and the administration agreed to do that.  By our last meeting in January 2015, a contract between Wendy’s and OSU had been signed stating that all of the concerns of OSU Student/Farmworker Alliance must be resolved if Wendy’s was to be allowed to remain in the Wexner Medical Center after December 31, 2016.

But since then, neither OSU nor Wendy’s has taken responsibility for the human rights of the farmworkers who feed students here on campus. Wendy’s is quick to offer its recently released Supplier Code of Conduct as its substitute for the FFP — and its reason for not joining.  But without any effective measures for enforcement or worker participation, Wendy’s code is just the latest example of corporate green-washing.  Given Wendy’s move to Mexico and its lax oversight of conditions in its supply chain there compared with the Fair Food Program in Florida, OSU SFA’s concerns have only deepened — but OSU administrators continue to refuse to meet with students to address those concerns, much less to live up to the written commitment made in the most recent lease agreement with Wendy’s.  

University President Michael Drake, now is the time to make good on your promises: First, your promise to listen to students by actually sitting down with us, but most importantly, your promise that OSU will do the right thing by farmworkers and end the contract with Wendy’s.  The time for stalling is past — the human rights of farmworkers will not wait.  We must “Boot the Braids,” University President Michael Drake, as you promised!

Amanda Ferguson, representing OSU Student/Farmworker Alliance
Master of Landscape Architecture student

One comment

  1. Drake take a stand? Not on your life. He is a Board puppet who hides in his ivory hall Bricker office. You will have better luck finding him at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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