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Ending Exploitation of U.S. Farmworkers

Fair Trade Comes Home

by STAN MAHAN

Most coffee and chocolate aficionados are generally well-versed on the Fair Trade movement, which organized to offer producers in developing countries better trade deals than would normally be offered to them by large corporate purchasers.

Today’s massive food conglomerates routinely leverage their purchasing power to negotiate prices so low as to all but ensure farmworkers suffer dire working conditions and sub-poverty wages.

In contrast, fair trade agreements pay these farms a premium for their products, while contractually obligating them to provide better working conditions and wages to their employees (including the rights to organize), and to promote superior environmental standards.

Yet, within the very borders of the United States, many farm workers continue to suffer from similar exploitation and deplorable working conditions. These mostly-migrant workers often have limited English-proficiency and questionable citizenship status, making them powerless to bargain for better conditions, or even to seek recourse when their employers violate federal and state labor laws.

The National Center For Farmworker Health found that 72% of all farmworkers in America were foreign born, earned between $12,500 – $14,999 per year on average, and 92% of them received no employer-provided health insurance — despite physically-demanding, high-risk work conditions.

Meet the Fair Food Program (FFP)

Driven by the same human-rights concerns as the Fair Trade movement, FFP activists pressure large ‘market-influencing’ purchasers of agricultural products to sign Fair Food Agreements that improve wages and working conditions of farmworkers in America.

The organization spearheading this effort is The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) — an organized tomato farmworker group based in Immokalee, Florida. The group describes itself as “a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida.”

The Florida tomato industry has a long well-documented record of human-rights abuses, including nine cases prosecuted for slave-labor in the past 15 years alone.

CIW organized in 1993 to overcome the industry’s exploitation, and their efforts have proven to be highly successful. Over ninety percent of the Florida tomato farming industry now participates in the Fair Food Program. And as Florida FFP tomatoes begin to ring synonymous with fair labor practices the movement has the potential to spread into other farming industries and states.

Consider the marketing advantages that ‘Fair Trade’-designated coffees enjoy in the billion dollar U.S. coffee industry, where millions of American consumers expect to buy nothing less than Fair Trade. This demand has lured many coffee roasters and coffee shops alike to make the extra effort and expend additional monies to offer Fair Trade selections.

The major grocers and restaurant chains who sign CIW’s Fair Food Agreement commit to purchase all their Florida tomatoes exclusively from farms that participate in FFP, which in turn gives holdout Florida tomato farms incentive to join as well.

There are 7 major elements to the Fair Food Program:

  • A pay increase supported by the price premium Participating Buyers pay for their tomatoes;
  • Compliance with the Code of Conduct, including zero tolerance for forced labor and systemic child labor;
  • Worker-to-worker education sessions conducted by the CIW on the farms and on company time to insure workers understand their new rights and responsibilities;
  • A worker-triggered complaint resolution mechanism leading to complaint investigation, corrective action plans, and, if necessary, suspension of a farm’s Participating Grower status, and thereby its ability to sell to Participating Buyers;
  • A system of Health and Safety volunteers on every farm to give workers a structured voice in the shape of their work environment;
  • Specific and concrete changes in harvesting operations to improve workers’ wages and working conditions, including an end to the age-old practice of forced overfilling of picking buckets (a practice which effectively denied workers pay for up to 10% of the tomatoes harvested), shade in the fields, and time clocks to record and count all compensable hours accurately.
  • Ongoing auditing of the farms to insure compliance with each element of the FFP.

Some of the methods CIW employs to pressure large retailers and restaurant chains into joining the program include: letter-writing campaigns, massive boycotts, highly-visible store and restaurant protests (not just in Florida, but across the country), and by educating the public about the heinous working conditions of farmworkers in the tomato industry. The group enjoys tremendous support from students, religious groups, labor groups, and community organizations across the United States.

Last week, following a 10-year-long campaign, CIW finally convinced Chipotle Mexican Grill, which operates under the “Food with Integrity” slogan, to sign the Fair Food Agreement, agreeing to pay a pennies-per-pound premium to help raise tomato workers’ wages across the state of Florida. With over 1,200 restaurants and $2.3 billion in revenues, this chain’s signature is a major victory for the FFP movement.

CIW member Nely Rodriguez explains how having powerful corporations like Chipotle as FFP members helps to end farmworker abuse:

“… [I]f there are any human rights violations in Florida’s fields, against women being sexually assaulted, for example, Chipotle now has the responsibility to hold the grower to the code of conduct, and stop the misconduct. There are now market consequences for abuse.” [...]

Chipotle joins ten other major corporations who similarly concluded that indirectly profiting from inhumane labor conditions is just not good business:

Yum Brands [includes Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC] (2005), McDonald’s (2007), Burger King (2008), Subway (2008), Whole Foods Market (2008), Bon Appetit Management Company (2009), Compass Group (2009), Aramark (2010), Sodexo (2010), Trader Joe’s (2012), and Chipotle (2012) are participating in the Fair Food Program.

All eleven companies have agreed to pay a premium price for more fairly produced tomatoes, and to shift their Florida tomato purchases to growers who comply with the Fair Food Code of Conduct.

Stan Mahan writes for Alterpolitics.com.

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THE ARAB SPRING AT A CROSSROADS — Esam Al-Amin surveys the new Middle East, from the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, to the aftermath of the overthrow of Qaddafi and the civil war in Syria, and outlines the economic and political challenges facing the fledgling Arab democracies; THE BI-PARTISAN PLAN TO GUT MEDICARE: Dave Lindorff digs beneath the rhetoric to expose the grim similarities in both Obama and Romney’s schemes to degrade Medicare by cutting spending, reducing eligibility and privatizing services. KAFKA IN SEATTLE: Kristian Williams details the surreal ordeal of Matthew Duran, thrown into federal prison even though prosecutors admit he committed no crime.
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