What is always appalling is the all-too-common occurrence of serious abuse and violence that farm laborers suffer, ranging from sexual harassment to modern-day slavery. This is the sad history of our agricultural system: policies that have enabled worker exploitation, from chattel slavery, convict leasing, and bracero programs.
This is why a dozen sustainable food advocated gathered in Immokalee, Florida. The group consisted of small farmers, chefs, journalists, authors, and community organizers from around the U.S., convened to learn about the most recent developments in food worker sustainability. While there, they spoke with farmworkers, toured a 3,000 acre tomato farm, and learned how little sustainability means if it doesn’t also include a vision for the hands that bring America’s food to the table.
Immokalee might not seem to be high on the list of sustainable food tourism, but the southwest Florida town is home to the migrant farmworker-led Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). With the support of allies across the nation, the CIW has created the most comprehensive, sustainable, verifiable system to ensure that the food on America’s tables is fairly picked.
Leonel Perez, a farmworker and CIW member, explained a bit of the background of the struggles faced by tomato pickers, and talked about some of the changes being made: “Until very recently, we earned a piece rate of .40 – .45 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes, which hadn’t changed in 30 years. We had to average about 125 buckets per day – approximately one ton of tomatoes – to make around $50. Many workers faced violence on the job. Women faced sexual harassment, and there were even cases of modern-day slavery. Today, because of the Fair Food Program, this is all beginning to change. We are making more money for our work and our rights are respected. A new day is dawning in the tomato fields of Florida, due to the collaborations between consumers, farmworkers, corporations, and the growers they buy from.”
Indeed, from his description, it sounds like the Fair Food Program could prove to be a model for how to re-shape the rest of American agriculture. The most interesting part of these changes? The program actually goes outside traditional political institutions to get the work done.
The CIW seeks out partnerships with major retailers, and to date, has established Fair Food Agreements with 11 major food corporations (McDonalds and Whole Foods among them). Program agreements include a penny-per-pound premium sent down the supply chain to workers, stipulate working conditions, and establish a third-party monitoring system to ensure change is lasting. But these corporate giants haven’t come to the table easily. Delegation participants learned that while the changes have been monumental, they are held in place by one crucial aspect– consumer power. Across the nation, consumers hold protests at local retailers, do educational outreach, and drop off signed letters to store managers that call on retailers to partner with the CIW.
Greg Asbed, a CIW representative, explained the logic of the campaign, “Market power often has adverse consequences for the poor. This is an example of market principles being applied in an upward fashion to ensure change for workers at the bottom of the supply chain. But we are far from system-wide transformation. We need more corporate buyers to come on board, and we need consumer support to make that possible.”
Delegation participants also heard from the CIW about their anti-slavery efforts, which have included working alongside the U.S. Department of Justice inprosecuting seven cases of modern day slavery in U.S. agriculture over the past 12 years. Laura Germino shared, “Farm laborers often pick crops in day-laborer fashion – brought to the fields by crew leaders who don’t keep records on who they are hiring and pay in cash or personal check. This means that large and mid-sized growers have virtually no clue who is working in their fields from day to day. It is into this uncertain space that people who typically come to this country alone, have little to no money, and no personal transportation, can easily become victims. With no one looking for them, no oversight, and no paper trail, the transition from day labor to forced labor becomes all too smooth.”
Germino impressed upon the group the link between the CIW’s anti-slavery efforts and their current work to get more retailers on board with their Fair Food Program,“The amount of oversight and monitoring the program provides literally eliminates the dark space into which people can disappear.”
Today, the CIW is currently focusing on trying to reach an agreement with Publix, one of the five largest grocery retailers in the U.S. Thus far the corporation has been reticent. One representative told an Alabama newspaper, “If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business.” Delegation representatives rounded out their trip with a visit to a local Publix to speak with the manager about the issue and drop off a letter expressing their concerns, but were escorted out within moments.
Delegation participant Rebecca Wiggins, Farm Fresh Director at La Semilla Food Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico, reflected on her experience before leaving Immokalee, saying, “Change is possible, but we can’t sit around and wait for the government to do something. Sometimes policy alone won’t fix our problems. I feel so empowered and ready to take action…I can’t wait to network with others and share this important story. ”