It was not that long ago when buying berries meant settling for canned or frozen berries, but Driscoll’s has changed the way berries are grown and distributed and become a very successful company as a result. Located amongst the Santa Cruz County strawberry fields around Watsonville, Driscoll’s blueberries, raspberries and blackberries can be found across the United States and overseas. But as the demand for fresh berries, and plant varietals that can grow in regions otherwise hostile to berry growing, are on the increase, so are disruptions in the company’s supply chain. A farmworkers’ union in Washington State has recently called for a consumer boycott of the company’s products, citing unfair labor practices by one of Driscoll’s suppliers.
According to farmworkers at Sakuma Berry Farm in Burlington, Washington, this important supplier of Driscoll’s has been paying unfair wages and substandard working conditions.
The union advocating for the workers, Familias Unidas por la Justia (FUJ), has decided to play the boycott card in order to pressure Driscoll’s to use its buying power to ensure that farmworkers employed at Sakuma score better wages, housing and working conditions. The union also calls for an end to what it describes as wage theft, unfair piece rate agreements and verbal abuse during working hours. Furthermore, FUJ has complained that the company had applied for H-2A seasonal visa workers in order to avoid hiring any local issues. Citing the support of 10,000 consumers who are in agreement with the Union, FUJ has called upon Driscoll’s to honor its “commitment to community and sustainability.”
Driscoll’s, a privately-held, family-owned company, indeed makes claims about sustainability, though its web site is very vague about environmental issues and makes almost no mention about its work environment or supply chain. The lack of transparency hardly helps Driscoll’s with making its case on this conflict, and the company also makes no mention of the controversy over the boycott.
Update: Driscoll's contacted us to share a statement with their position on farmworker wages and inviting the Fair Worker Project Driscoll HQ for a meeting to discuss the issue.
Sakuma, however, categorically denies all of FUJ’s allegations. The company claims it pays about US$12 an hour, which is even higher than Seattle’s living wage—and employees supposedly can become eligible for benefits such as paid vacation, health insurance and even participation in the firm’s 401(k) program. Sakuma also says it has not laid off any workers since 2013, with the exception of Ramon Torres, FUJ’s president and former company employee. According to the company, Torres was fired because of an arrest over alleged domestic abuse against his wife. Finally, in contrast to the union’s demands, Sakuma claims it had negotiated in good faith, but that FUJ left the talks.
Meanwhile, one Bellingham co-op has supported the boycott, citing the hostile work environment within Sakuma and a settlement the company paid over wage theft litigation. Other stores have joined the boycott as well. Recently farmworkers have reported that packinghouse workers have boxed berries in Driscoll’s containers instead of Sakuma-branded cases, which instigated FUJ to start the boycott. FUJ is also calling for a boycott against Haagen-Dazs and Yoplait for their ties with Sakuma.
For Driscoll’s and other companies that find problems within their supply chains, the lesson is clear: address the problem immediately, be transparent and work with the supplier to address the issue. The issue may not reach far beyond the Pacific Northwest, but the old web links will linger and be found by consumers researching Driscoll’s in the future as more of them will be vetting the companies from which the purchase their favorite products.
Image credit: Boycott Sakuma Berries
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.