( File photo )

Growers are suffering from a critical labor shortage, but berry farms that supply Driscoll’s of the Americas have a competitive advantage because they pay their laborers more, Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s, said in a recent webinar on the industry’s Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices.

This advantage was hard-won. Driscoll’s, Watsonville, Calif., and its growers lost tens of millions of dollars when farm laborers, angry over stagnant wages, conducted a 12-week strike and left crops to rot in Baja, Mexico, in 2015. After a collective bargaining agreement, the global berry distributor boosted its minimum daily wage to 226 pesos, about $12 — among the highest pay for farmworkers anywhere in Mexico, according to the L.A. Times.

“You don’t want to wait for something to happen to come up with these standards. You want to handle this proactively,” Bjorn said in the Dec. 4 webinar.

Driscoll’s was one of three fresh produce companies that weighed in on the Ethical Charter during the webinar, hosted by the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association.

David Marguleas, executive vice president of Sun World International LLC, and Preston Witt, human rights director of Costco Wholesale, also gave their opinions and experiences on the Ethical Charter.

The Charter’s main principles are about respect: human rights, the laws at work and professional conduct — especially purchasing.

“Strong support of our workers is in our business interest as well,” Tom Stenzel, United Fresh CEO and president, said in the webinar.

Sun World, Bakersfield, Calif., a grower and exporter of grapes, talked with farm workers and community members to find solutions to California’s farm labor shortage while improving their working conditions and support systems, Marguleas said.

In early 2018, the company helped launch California Harvesters Inc., an employee benefit company that provides members with better pay, health benefits and access to education, according to Marguleas. Now, Sun World finds its laborers through that independent cooperative.

“As more growers become aware of this, and the labor pool continues to tighten, it will broaden its reach,” Marguleas said in the webinar.

As an Issaquah, Wash.-based, retailer and wholesaler, Costco’s priorities are to improve product traceability to assure standards are being met. Witt said Costco is sifting through verification models that add value to suppliers and aren’t duplicating efforts.

 “We look at our business in the sense that we have to plan now for 10 years down the road,” Witt said in the webinar.

According to the Ethical Charter website, almost 70 companies have endorsed the program.