Two Driscoll’s Executives, Brian McElroy, the VP of Global Ethics and Standards, and Kelley Bell, VP of Social and Environmental Impact, took some time to talk about the current labor dynamic in agriculture and the associated opportunities and challenges for the industry.

Brian joined Driscoll’s nearly twelve years ago after working for CCOF for over a decade. As the VP of Global Ethics and Standards, Brian works with all of the Driscoll’s business units across the globe to set global standards and reinforce their Code of Business Conduct.

Kelley joined Driscoll’s thirteen years ago and is globally responsible for integrating social and environmental considerations into core strategic decisions and planning processes. She leads philanthropic, worker welfare and sustainability priorities.

Ganaz: What are some of the biggest challenges with requests from customers regarding labor standards?

Brian: Customer requests come through on food safety, organic standards, labor issues, quality and compliance with the law. When we talk about organic, that is really clear and really well defined. There are federal standards, and there’s only one standard. You get a certificate and that’s it--that’s all the retailer wants. That’s a really clear validation process.

Food safety is a little less clear but it’s still relatively clear. You do Global GAP or PrimusLabs and customers generally accept those certificates. But in the area of labor standards, there’s not one standard or one way to show compliance, so it’s become a real challenge and the retailers are trying to figure out how to ask the supply chain to show compliance in a way that is doable.

We’ve seen customers turn and hire companies like SGS and then say, “they’re going to come audit you and you’re going to pay the bill.” Obviously, that’s not something we’re comfortable with. So we’ve adopted a standard that’s rigorous and clear and it’s on our website. We at Driscoll’s are trying to conduct an internal process which means our growers’ are subject to audits and we’re going to prove that our audits are equal to any other standard.

This also points to why we’re participating in the Fair Trade USA program in Baja--because there are a number of customers that acknowledge the Fair Trade USA process and value it. That requires that our suppliers that are participating in the Fair Trade USA program are audited to a set of labor standards.

For individual growers, the realization is that just like you get a food safety audit, the future is that you’re going to get a labor audit.

Ganaz: Is there a role for a single standard like there is in organic?

Brian: There’s no one standard that we can all turn to very easily. There’s also not one process for validating that we meet that standard. These competing standards that are around are all trying to do the same thing. They’re all trying to provide a way for suppliers and customers to come together and provide a level of transparency in their supply chain. They’re all well intended. It’s going to be very difficult, and it’s going to take a long time to figure out how to create a verification process across an industry that is as varied as produce and farming. It’s not going to come easily.

Ganaz: Change management, education, empowerment and collaborative problem solving are part of your team’s work within Driscoll’s. Can you give me an example of one of those things that you’re excited about? 

Kelley: In Baja, where we put Fair Trade in place, one of the things we’ve seen is the importance of connecting more deeply with those in the field and providing a forum to bring their voice forward. It’s empowered them and allowed for us to learn in the process. This has resulted in them feeling more connected to their work and having more loyalty. We haven’t seen any downside to it.

In terms of where we’re heading, we want to create partnerships with growers and farmworkers, particularly on some of these community level challenges that exist. That kind of approach is quite new in the industry broadly. If you look at the US, the farmworkers can be very much in the shadows because of the dynamic they’re operating in. We ask, how do we engage them in a way that’s meaningful for them, helps make our business better and enriches communities? I think we have a lot to learn there. I do see this as the biggest opportunity we have.

Ganaz: What is something you’d like to understand better about the employees in Driscoll’s supply chains?

Kelley: Our model, in which growers are independent, is a unique and fantastic model. That model has served us and our growers well.  That’s allowed growers to build their own businesses and livelihoods. The challenge is that we’re one step removed from growers’ employees so we don’t have direct access to their perspective. I think we still have work to do to understand demographics, migration patterns, seasonality of employment, the dynamics of those populations and therefore how we drive more positive impact.

Ganaz: How have labor standards and audits created value for Driscoll’s and it’s growers?

Brian: At Driscoll’s, even before we adopted a labor standard, we were spending a lot of time talking about how to attract and retain labor. Especially in berries, there’s a lot of demand for labor. A lot of these jobs are hard to do and they aren’t the most desirable jobs. Especially in California with immigration issues, our labor force is shrinking. The Mexican economy is expanding, which means Mexican citizens can stay in Mexico.

There’s a labor shortage in California in produce, and there are similar labor challenges everywhere we work. Produce may move to a location where it seems like there’s plentiful labor and within a matter of a few years there’s a lot of competition for labor and it becomes more scarce. So we’re trying to figure out how to attract and retain employees, and one of the best ways to do that--other than earning power--is to provide people with places to work that are more enjoyable, that are clean, that respect their labor and respect them as individuals. This is how we’re going to keep people in our industry. 

Ganaz: How do you think agricultural employment will change in the US and Mexico in the next decade?

Kelley: With all of the resource constraints (labor, water, regulation, etc.), there is no doubt we see automation coming into play. That will result in fewer jobs but in many cases, new higher skilled jobs. Certainly there are opportunities for existing workforce to get trained and play different roles over time. But that change will take a while to get to. There’s so much in-ground farming in the Americas that we don’t see it happening overnight. In the short term, we anticipate a growing dependency on guest workers because of labor shortages. This can mean more migration and therefore more vulnerability for the workforce and more cost to the grower.

As more retailer and regulatory requirements come down the pike onto the farmers, and as resources continue to become constrained, we see this putting pressure on local, smaller farmers. We are trying to create the right support system for small growers to continue to sell their fruit in this increasingly complex environment.

Ganaz: What changes do you foresee in the next 5 years with regards to standards & transparency in supply chains?

Brian: Over the next 5 years I see increasing intensity of what we’re seeing now. More customers and more suppliers defining requirements for labor standards and more verification that those standards are actually in place. Right now it’s about more compliance, more verification, and more questions.

We’re all being challenged to verify labor compliance. And when I say “all,” I mean everyone--from consumers to customers to supply chains like Driscoll’s to the grower out in the field, growing and picking berries. We’re all being challenged and we need to recognize that it’s no one person that’s demanding or driving growers to do something. It really is that we’re all being asked to come together and provide the validation of a really clean supply chain and best practices. So the sooner we can all just help each other out, the better off we’ll all be. Everyone wants to sell their product, so let’s work together to make that product the best possible product to sell through the supply chain.

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