Amid calls for a boycott of its products, Driscoll’s says previous union claims against a berry supplier have been resolved and it has no place intervening in labor negotiations.
Last week, Oregon-based Fair World Project announced it had collected 10,000 signatures in a petition to Driscoll’s urging the multinational to cease purchases from Washington family grower Sakuma Farms, alleging farmworker abuse and a deadlock in achieving a fair and legally-binding contract.
Driscoll’s executive vice president Soren Bjorn told www.freshfruitportal.com he would welcome outreach from the Fair World Project for dialogue, but third party audits had shown issues raised by workers from the Familias Unidas de Justicia (FUJ) had been sufficiently addressed.
“I think that there are some specific claims around how workers are being treated, how they are being paid and so forth, and we have taken a very close look at that including engaging outside third partiess,” Bjorn said.
“We feel that there were some legitimate claims a while back and those have all been properly addressed by Sakuma.
“We have a very long standing relationship with the Sakuma family in the Pacific Northwest; that relationship has always been productive, they’ve been huge supporters of Driscoll’s and we stand behind them as long as they continue to meet our standards, not only on these kinds of issues but in food safety, quality and other elements of our relationship with them.”
He said Driscoll’s always took matters like this very seriously.
“In the end we are the ones facing the market and consumers will be concerned about issues and claims like this – from the beginning we took it seriously, we made resources available to Sakuma to take a look at their own operations.
“They have to take responsibility for how they treat and pay their workers, to the extent that if they don’t address those issues that jeopardizes their relationship with us.
He said anyone who ran a farming operation could find themselves out of compliance in certain areas sometimes.
“But as long as our growers jump all over it and respond in the appropriate manner, then we’re prepared to stand by them.
“Unfortunately, all these protests and calls for boycotts have gone on beyond the timeframe where Sakuma has addressed these issues.
“Clearly people have the right to disagree and protest, and there’s little we can do about that, but if the claims are not legitimate at some point then we don’t think that’s going to have any significant impact in the marketplace.”
FUJ: compensation and contracts
FUJ president Ramon Torres told www.freshfruitportal.com the union had successfully reached a compensation agreement with Sakuma for non-payments that allegedly occurred between 2010 and 2013.
“On April 25 we will start to distribute checks to people for the theft of wages during that time,” Torres claimed.
“The problem that a lot of people don’t understand is that if you work an eight-hour day or even a 10-hour day but you haven’t necessarily picked enough strawberries to make the minimum wage, then the employer has an obligation to make up the balance.
“But what happens if there’s no break for lunch? Where is the money for the lunch period that I didn’t get?”
Torres claimed Sakuma was refusing to agree to a contract that would rectify these kinds of issues, and was allegedly applying for H-2A visa workers to get around the issue.
“To use H-2Athey have to prove there are not enough people to work. We are against them using that system because there are enough people to work here in the community, and therefore we’re trying to stop the application.
“We aim to have 500 declarations to that effect from workers before April 15 that we can present to labor departments in Olimpia, Seattle and San Francisco.
“You can’t just abuse a person because they’re not from here. We’re out in the fields, we have experience, and even though some of us may not have papers, we still have rights. That’s what we’re fighting for.”
When asked about what Driscoll’s could do about negotiations between FUJ and Sakuma, Bjorn said the company had to maintain its policy of having independent growers that followed the law.
“I think that’s a big part of our relationship with independent growers and how we operate – in the end, the pay and other conversations, other benefits and relationships that exist between the grower and the workers, that’s between the grower and the workers as long as we are within the law,” he said.
“If the matter is not within the law then it’s a different matter – then we would get a lot more interested in getting things corrected – but to the extent that there is a simple disagreement about the amount of pay or benefits, or whether they’re under a union contract or not, we really can’t step into the middle of that.”
Labor supply challenges
While Torres claimed H-2A visas were not necessary in Sakuma’s case due to a ready supply of labor, Bjorn said statistics clearly showed that was not the case for the industry.
“The availability of farm labor in the United States, and especially on the West Coast of the United States, has become significantly limited over the last several years, for basic socioeconomic reasons in Mexico, obviously changes on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and an improving economy in the U.S.
“The only solution to that in the short term, short of having some greater reform in the United States, is that your only mechanism is to bring in H-2A labor – that is heavily regulated and we expect growers really don’t have too many options other than that.
“It’s the only way today that growers can really expand their labor pool for farm workers, so you’re going to see an increased usage of H-2A farmworkers in the United States.”
He said a reduction in Mexico’s birth rate from five children per family to two children per family within a generation would also have an impact on the U.S. agricultural labor force in the future.
“And you look at what’s happening in the Mexican economy that has become increasingly modernized, you can’t not predict that the day will come when the supply of farm labor from Mexico is not going to be sufficient for the United States, so therefore the farm labor will need to come from other places.”
In terms of the season ahead, Bjorn said hot weather in California would undoubtedly affect the spring-summer berry campaign.
“All the crops in North America are significantly advanced. That’s setting up for a pretty interesting season with a plentiful supply in the early spring, and it could make for some pretty interesting dynamics throughout the summer where there may not be as much supply as we had planned on and are used to,” he said.
“So there has been a significant shift in when the supply is coming in. I’m talking about the West Coast, but thats where most of the berries come from, and so we do have a pretty interesting dynamic.
“There’s also a good dynamic in the marketplace. We’re glad that the East Coast is finally digging out from two meters of snow from a long winter, and they’re ready to eat berries again. The first quarter has not been the greatest quarter in terms of demand, but we see that picking up already.”
Sakuma’s claims about pay and Torres
On Sakuma’s website in 2013 it listed facts about labor issues at the time, claiming it guaranteed US$12 per hour to its workers plus an incentivized piece rate and housing.
The company also highlighted that up until that point in time, there had been no layoffs or terminations with the exception of Torres in September that year following his arrest for the alleged domestic abuse of beating his wife.
“A “no-contact” order was filed against Ramon Torres by Skagit County on September 2 which was intended to prevent him from having any contact with his wife,” Sakuma said on its website.
“Given that Torres currently lived at the farm workers camp, Sakuma Brothers Farms had a responsibility to provide a safe environment to all of the children and adults living in the camp and made the decision to fire Torres and remove the potential threat from the property.”