Royal Ahold: the CIW goes to Amsterdam!

“Royal” Ahold sticks to company line at 2011 shareholders meeting in Amsterdam;
CIW responds…

The CIW’s Lucas Benitez crossed the Atlantic this week to attend Ahold’s 2011 shareholders meeting in Amsterdam. He went in the hope that, given a chance to make his case to the company’s board and the gathered shareholders, a more sincere dialogue might be sparked and Ahold could finally bring its US chains (Stop & Shop, Giant, Martin’s, and Peapod) in line with the Fair Food principles.

He joined forces in Amsterdam with representatives of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Teamsters, both of whom brought their own serious grievances to the board about Ahold’s efforts to, in their respective cases, prevent workers from organizing in its stores and to eliminate good union jobs in its distribution network. The flyer in the picture above was part of a “goodie bag” assembed by all three workers’ organizations and distributed to all the shareholders as they arrived for the meeting.

When the time came for questions and answers, Lucas (shown below addressing the board members, with translation by Marc Rodrigues of the Student/Farmworker Alliance) asked two questions of the board chairman, Mr. Dahan:

“Does Ahold pay a fair trade premium on the fair trade products it sells in its stores? If the response is “yes,” why does Ahold refuse to pay the Fair Food premium for tomatoes that it says come from CIW certified growers?How can Royal Ahold justify that American fast-food companies like Mcdonald’s, Burger King, and Subway are, by any objective measure, meeting higher ethical standards in their tomato supply chains than Ahold, including paying a premium for fairer wages and committing their purchases in support of higher standards?”

But Royal Ahold (which, like the oil and gas company “Royal Dutch Shell,” was given its regal title by the Dutch royal family for its centenary in 1987) once again refused to engage in any sincere examination of its Florida tomato supply chain. Instead, clearly flustered by the Fair Trade question, the company talked about its “ongoing dialogue” with the CIW, insisted that Ahold only wants to pay “fair market prices,” and, despite the fact that both Lucas and Marc had traveled thousands of mile to be there, essentially read from the PR response to the Campaign for Fair Food on their website to round out their answer.

[If you have five minutes, it’s really worth watching the exchange, which you can find here. That link will take you to the Ahold shareholders meeting site. Once there, click on the “video broadband stream” link and move the time line to the 70:06 mark for the beginning of Lucas’ questions. The confusion and evasion around the Fair Trade analogy — captured to a degree in the expression on the face of Ahold’s board chairman, Rene Dahan, shown here on the right — are really something to see.]

As it happens, we have just now completed our trilogy of CIW responses to supermarket public relations position papers on the Campaign for Fair Food. You’ve seen our point-by-point response to Publix’s “put it in the price” defense, and our answer to Trader Joe’s “note to our customers about Florida tomatoes.”

Now, timed nicely with Ahold’s icy — and disappointingly disinguenuous — performance at the shareholders meeting, comes our response to Ahold’s “Letter to the CIW“. Here’s an excerpt, on the question of Ahold’s claim to an “ongoing dialogue” with the CIW:

… Which brings us to Ahold’s claim of a being engaged in a sincere and ongoing dialogue with the CIW, a claim they repeated at this week’s shareholder meeting in Amsterdam. In short, we beg to differ, and since we are supposedly the other half of this “dialogue,” we are in a unique position to do so.Here is the sum total of Ahold’s dialogue with us: We have met with Ahold exactly twice — once, briefly, in Amsterdam, and once for about an hour in New York. The essence of their participation can be boiled down to this: Thank you for traveling here to share your thoughts with us, but we are not interested. Their attorney has spoken by phone with the CIW’s attorney twice since then to reiterate that message. The last call was five months ago. There is no ongoing dialogue.

In short, Ahold continues its policy of, in the words of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), “dragging its feet on farmworker justice in its supply chain and attempting to co-opt the good name of a leading human rights organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), to cover its tracks.”

Yet none of this is news to Ahold. Its leadership knows whether we are engaged in a genuine “dialogue” or not, just as they know how real their “standards” are, or can be, without a modicum of enforcement, and how “fair” a market price is that drives ever-deepening poverty and degradation for the workers at the base of their supply chain.

Indeed, they know full well the reality behind their slick reports and position papers, but they choose to live in a world of quotation marks, of feigned engagement and cynical, superficial claims of social responsibility in their supply chain.

And they will remain in that world until they are obliged to abandon it and enter the real world, where the Fair Food Program is the highest ethical standard for sourcing tomatoes from Florida, where “Royal Dutch” Ahold finally catches up with the leaders of the oft-pilloried American fast-food industry in meeting those higher ethical standards, where turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in US fields is no longer a viable option for supply chain management.

Ahold will, sooner or later, be obliged to recognize the new reality. How soon depends on us – farmworkers and Fair Food activists – and our commitment to extending the Fair Food standards not only across the entire Florida tomato industry, but across the entire retail food industry that buys Florida tomatoes.

Because there is one thing about Ahold you can trust, and that is this: They will not abandon their world of social-responsibility-between-quotation-marks of their own volition.

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