There is no single issue more critical to the produce industry and agriculture at-large than labor. With an evaporating labor pool and shrinking margins, attracting and keeping workers can mean the difference between survival and bankruptcy for some growers.
That puts labor in agriculture under a societal microscope that makes every transgression more visible than the last — and casts a negative shadow over the industry as a whole.
That’s why the Produce Marketing Association and United Fresh, the industry’s dynamic duo marketing and lobbying associations, years ago started the process of codifying fair labor practices for produce operations.
The topic becomes even more important as buyers and consumers are starting to ask questions about where the food comes from and how it is produced — and they’re not just talking about Good Agricultural Practices in the ground.
Now, PMA and United Fresh have released the joint Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices, a framework for responsible labor practices in fresh produce and floral supply chains.
PMA CEO Cathy Burns, United Fresh CEO Tom Stenzel and of Companies and co-Chair of the Joint Committee on Responsible Labor Practices, met with industry media in a conference call announcing the new policy.
Industry Judged By Exceptions
The tenets of the Charter are non-binding and failure to adhere has no consequences, PMA and United Fresh point out — this isn’t a mandate. But the court of public opinion may well feel differently for companies who choose not to abide by the new standards.
“Sometime in 2015 both PMA and United Fresh recognized that there are a lot of very good things happening in the industry regarding good labor practices, but a lot of times an industry is judged by its exceptions or the poor performances that happen,” Kocher said. “Part of the need we wanted to address was to bring a consistent and unified approach across the supply chain to responsible labor.”
The two organizations launched a joint labor committee at the end of 2015, equally divided among produce suppliers and buyers, farmers and distributors, representing the entire produce and floral supply chain. The committee met numerous times through 2016-17 to develop a draft charter with “a lot of feedback across the supply chain,” Kocher said.
40 Industry Leaders Already Aboard
The Boards approved the Charter in January, with more than 40 companies formally endorsing, including Albertsons, Costco, Kroger, McDonalds, Sam’s Club, Walmart and Wegmans, as well as numerous companies that produce fresh fruits, vegetables and
The Charter hopes to create an industry-wide framework that supports the dignity of workers critical to bringing fresh fruits,
vegetables and floral products to consumers.
“We wanted to develop a set of principles that would apply to every produce grower, floral grower, something we could all incorporate into our own businesses,” Stenzel said. “Our workers are the most important part of us and our ability to bring fresh produce and floral to consumers.”
The biggest challenge, Stenzel said, was “to find a set of principles that would apply globally” since laws differ country by country and even state by state.
A range of tools and resources are being made available to the industry, including measurement criteria, a self-assessment form, a responsible sourcing guide and an endorsement packet for companies to use in communicating their commitment. All of those are available on either the PMA or United Fresh websites.
‘We Don’t Need Another Audit’
PMA and United Fresh will now encourage companies throughout the produce and floral supply chains to add their endorsement and join what they hope will be a growing community.
Participation is voluntary, but there could be longer-range benefits for supporting the charter.
“One hundred percent this could be used on the far end as a competitive advantage for our industry to attract from other industries and attract young people to our industry,” Burns said. “This can help shore that up or be an important tenet of that. Labor, talent and the battle for it is what keeps people up at
“We don’t need another audit in our industry,” Stenzel said, “but we do hope to drive alignment around these sets of principles.”
Added Burns, “The charter and these three tools should help you get there. We don’t want to create things that are duplicative or don’t add value. Our outreach will include a variety of options at our own events and other associations’, webinars, any number of tools. And then we’ll see what the marketplace demands from there.”