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From tomatoes to Hollywood: Improving workers’ rights in the fields and beyond 

Issues Affecting Women Programme / Partner story

Photo provided by the Fair Food Programme

Add a Florida-grown tomato to your salad, and the chances are it’s been picked by a worker with some of the highest human rights protections in US agriculture. This is because at least 90 per cent of tomato production in Florida, the US, is now part of the Fair Food Programme. That one tomato tells an incredible story of a worker-driven rights movement that started in the US, and is now expanding around the world.

The Fair Food Programme (FFP) has succeeded in implementing reforms in Florida and nine additional states, that have eradicated the most severe forms of exploitation in agriculture, and created a dignified working environment for workers. Today, farmworkers receive protection against forced labour, sexual abuse and harassment, violence, wage theft, and dangerous conditions. They are also given access to breaks, shade, and clean drinking water. Thanks to a new ‘bucket-filling standard’, workers are no longer pressured to overfill harvesting buckets, but instead receive fair pay for the amount picked, earning around 10 per cent more as a result [1].

But this wasn’t always the case, as one worker on an FFP farm explains: “I have been in the fields all my life… I have seen a great deal. And now I also see that things are better, now we are not treated like dogs – I am grateful.” And the fields once known to federal prosecutors as “ground zero for modern-day slavery” are now seen as the best workplace environment in US agriculture.

An approach to end ‘generations of suffering’
US legislation that guarantees basic labour protections dates back to the 1930s. However, farm and domestic workers were excluded from the protections of the National Labour Relations Act, leaving workers in these sectors highly vulnerable to exploitation. This includes human trafficking, which farm workers, especially women, are particularly vulnerable to.

Nowhere was this vulnerability more evident than Florida’s tomato sector. In the early 1990s, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a worker-based human rights organisation, uncovered multiple instances of forced labour and human trafficking, helping free more than 1,500 workers. But the conditions that permitted these abuses remained.

CIW realised that it needed to counteract the vast power imbalance between farmworkers and their employers. So it went to the top of the supply chain, with the goal of marshalling the purchasing power of retail food giants that buy millions of pounds of produce for stores and restaurants every year.

These efforts grew into the Campaign for Fair Food, launched in 2001. It mobilised a national network of consumers that asked companies to use their market power as a force for good by:

  • paying a premium – a penny more a pound – for their produce, which would be passed on to workers as a bonus; and
  • agreeing to purchase only from growers who implemented a human rights-based code of conduct on their farms.

Ten years later, with major retailers and restaurant chains onboard, these efforts led to the foundation of the FFP, an organisation with a simple but compelling proposition for buyers in its strapline: Consumer Powered – Worker Certified. Under this umbrella, the CIW created a Code of Conduct based on workers’ experiences and priorities and carries out worker to worker education on the rights provided by the Code, on all participating farms. As a result, with the help of the FFP as the official monitoring organisation, tens of thousands of workers have become frontline monitors of their own rights, in interactions with their supervisors and co-workers. The Fair Foods Standards Council, a separate not-for-profit organisation, was set up to conduct audits on all participating farms and to respond to a 24-hour worker hotline to help address systemic issues and resolve workers’ complaints.

Overall, the FFP has been instrumental in improving farms’ treatment of their workforce. “It’s a unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that ensures humane working conditions and increased compensation for the people who feed our families,” says Judge Laura Safer Espinoza who leads the Fair Food Standards Council. “What’s remarkable is that this unprecedented, sector-wide transformation grew from one group of workers who wanted to end generations of suffering.”

In 2014, the huge achievements of the CIW were recognised with the 2014 Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking in Persons. Presenting the medal, the then US Secretary of State John Kerry commended the “extraordinary accomplishment” which demonstrated “that dedicated individuals… can strike out against injustice, break down barriers, and make a world of difference”.

A new take on corporate social responsibility
Robust and respectful reporting systems mean that FFP’s standards are upheld by third-party auditing and feedback systems, so that workers can report problems without fear of retaliation. Incidences of abuse, including sexual violence and harassment, have been dramatically reduced as a result. Women agriculture workers feel safer in the workplace.

Therefore, a sector previously synonymous with modern-day slavery has become one of the best working environments in US agriculture. The Harvard Business Review has described FFP as “one of the most important social-impact success stories of the past century”.

Now, the reach of the FFP’s efforts has expanded beyond Florida, to other states and new crops. As a result, thousands of workers, especially women, who were previously invisible in the agriculture sector, enjoy its human rights protections. Over USD 42 million of direct premium payments from corporate buyers have been distributed to farmworkers as a bonus in their regular pay cheques.

And today, perhaps the most powerful export of the FFP is not just its produce, but its model of Worker-Driven Social Responsibility (WSR). “This approach flipped the script on traditional corporate social responsibility programmes, because it puts power directly into the hands of workers,” explains Judge Laura Safer Espinoza. “There are real market consequences for farms who don’t comply with agreed standards.”

In 2015, the WSR Network launched to share these principles with other industries where workers are vulnerable to exploitation. As a result, WSR has been adopted in US sectors as varied as dairy, construction, and modelling (where young women are especially vulnerable). And in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it collaborated with the Hollywood Commission to develop the blueprint for a programme tackling sexual harassment in the film industry.

Another network member is the Milk With Dignity programme, which brings together farmworkers, farmers, buyers and consumers to secure dignified working conditions in dairy supply chains on US farms. One worker outlined some of the benefits, saying, “I feel more protected because I know more now… about the rights that I have as a worker and the right to be respected by my boss.”

Outside of the US, WSR principles are being used to remedy dangerous conditions for the significant numbers of women working in the Bangladeshi and Pakistani garment sectors and eliminate gender-based violence in garment factories in Lesotho.

The future of the Fair Food Programme
Back in the tomato fields of Immokalee, the FFP continues to ensure improved working conditions on certified farms, and the arrival of new challenges is met with positive action. When the coronavirus pandemic threatened to harm farmworkers’ health and potentially decimate jobs in the industry, the FFP introduced and enforced new prevention and illness response standards to ensure that workers would be protected during the crisis.

“They put a lot of protections in place… I wasn’t too afraid of the pandemic because of the precautions that the company was taking,” Immokalee farmworker Antonia Rios Hernandez told the New York Times in January 2021.

The latest improvement in standards and enforcement is the FFP’s new heat stress prevention protocols, requiring mandatory rest breaks, and many other prevention and response mechanisms, as climate change continues to impact outdoor work environments.

Oak has supported the Fair Food Programme and the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network since 2016 through the Worker Justice and Dignity Fund, hosted by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Oak was the first philanthropic foundation to recognise the significance of worker-driven social responsibility as an effective strategy to prevent and end extreme forms of exploitation and abuse that many women experience in the most marginalised work environments. This grant falls under our Issues Affecting Women Programme, which seeks to strengthen women’s organisations and movements, enabling them to learn from each other and work together to develop knowledge and skills, and to plan, organise and mobilise. You can find more about the IAWP programme by clicking here. You can also find out more about the Fair Food Programme here.

[1] 2021 State of the Program Report, Fair Food Programme