Driscoll’s Brian McElroy and Kelley Bell: Part One in an Interview on Agricultural Labor and Change in the Industry

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.

Kelley: Tell me about your role at Driscoll’s

My role has evolved quite a bit since I started and so has the company. My scope covers both social and environmental impact. Right now, my biggest charge is to lead the global initiative we call Sustainable Communities. We have great interdependency and impact on both the people and the environment in each of our production communities. Therefore, as Driscoll’s continues to grow, we want our communities to grow stronger with us. Sustainable Communities has three pillars: thriving workforce, resilient community and healthy environment. My team’s role is to enable the whole enterprise—and that includes our independent growers—to create sustainable businesses that have positive impact. This is all aligned with our company vision to become the world’s berry company, enriching the lives of everyone we touch. 

Kelley: What are you most proud of in terms of Driscoll’s role in agricultural employment?

Since the beginning, Driscoll’s built itself with this collaborative intention. Our mission is all about alignment with growers and customers. Everything we do points to a collaborative nature and desire to have positive impact. I think it’s in our DNA to operate that way. We started with our business model which offers growers opportunity to access the market, build businesses, and feed their local economy. Then, we established our philanthropic efforts which led to community investment, and then more direct environmental projects on water. Then, we incorporated our labor standards, and we’re doing work to engage communities on larger challenges. It has been a build over time.

We’ve realized that many of our communities, particularly rural communities where we have established in the last 10-15 years, have big challenges that affect our employees, our growers and our growers’ workforces. We’re doing collaborative work to tackle those challenges together.

One example that illustrates this is that in multiple towns in Mexico where our growers are paying into social security, and, as part of that system, workers are supposed to receive medical benefits. In many of these communities the government hasn’t provided healthcare or built facilities to accommodate the need. We’ve been working with our growers and the government to bring in a mobile clinic into several of our communities. The mobile clinic provides screenings, performs simple procedures and distribution of some needed supplies where there hasn’t been in the past. This makes me quite proud. We are trying to look at things holistically. We are trying to create sustainable communities.

In some of the communities where we are, we have often been one of the first companies to get established. In the Yunnan province in China, for example, they’ve been growing rice for thousands of years. Many of the next generation have left to go to the city because there is no work, and you can’t make a living off of rice. We brought in technology and trained locals to become growers in our system. This effort has reinvigorated these communities in remote villages, and it’s been amazing to see some of the results where berry farmers can make 3 to 4 times what they could make growing rice. We do recognize we still have significant work to do, but I’m inspired by the journey we are on.

Kelley: How does Driscoll’s think about tackling challenges that affect your supply chain but are also industry-wide?

One of the reasons I love working at Driscoll's is we tend to be invigorated by challenges. In turn, we always try to affect change collaboratively which means through partnerships. We like learning and finding the right partners to be at the table with us. Part of what I’ve been very proud of in terms of our journey on labor is that we haven’t just worked internally with our growers, but we’ve been also working at the industry level to affect change. If you look across the industry, there can be so much variability, size of growers, capability of growers, geographical limitations, cultural implications. We’ve always recognized we have to work at the industry level to support some level of consistency in practice. For example, we’ve been working with PMA and United on their ethical charter as it gets developed. In Mexico, we’ve been working with AHIFORES to drive better employment practices in the industry. Those partnerships have been very fulfilling and we’ve learned a lot.

Brian: What’s changed in the last 5-10 years about what retailers are asking for with regards to social responsibility?

I think everybody’s seen the issues that have popped up. [Labor in supply chains] has been a sensitive topic for a long time, but it comes up again as different issues arise. In the fishing industry, there was what we know as “slave fish.” Then child labor in chocolate popped up as a big issue. Then there have been a number of labor issues within produce, and obviously the labor issues in Baja that affected Driscoll’s and the other produce companies in Baja.

That’s been a big part of what retailers are concerned about. The retailers don’t want their name associated with those issues. And as a result, they’re starting to ask more questions about their supply chains. Every time Driscoll’s of the Americas--and I think it’s true for Europe too--works with a retailer, we get asked to sign a supplier code of conduct, and more and more those codes are addressing labor issues. [Those issues include] freedom of association, minimum employment age, voluntary overtime, and a lot of topics that are associated with human trafficking. They’re not just satisfied with us signing those codes of conduct, they want us to undergo audits or some sort of validation that we’re complying. As a result, we’re having to carry those same issues to our growers.

Kelley: How has Driscoll’s role in employment practices changed over the last decade?

In general terms, Driscoll’s role has become more purposeful and more integrated. We have an independent grower model. In many of our regions, particularly where we have growth, we have labor shortages and gaps in community infrastructure as well as local services to support all the stakeholders in the system. As we grow, we ask what kind of systemic solution do we need to put in place. What do we know upfront? What type of analysis do we need to put into our planning? Who do we need to engage and share our growth plan with at the local level so they can plan for local services and supporting infrastructure? We’re having different conversations now. This speaks to our newer approach around how do we create sustainable businesses and sustainable communities, understanding the interdependencies. As opposed to thinking about employment practices as a separate work stream, we are thinking about how we plan for the business holistically. As we think about growth, we think about not only vulnerabilities as we plan, but also what new knowledge is needed, the stakeholder landscape and our impact. We think about who we engage, what we do, and how to talk about it.

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