WSR schemes train tomato pickers in Florida (where the fruit is picked green for ease of transit) to understand their rights ©Getty Images
WSR schemes train tomato pickers in Florida (where the fruit is picked green for ease of transit) to understand their rights ©Getty Images

Buyer responsibility: a worker-driven revolution

The tomato fields of Florida were once dubbed the “ground zero” of modern slavery, largely down to the efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), founded in 1993, which was regularly uncovering human trafficking rings.

“We were fighting a modern slavery case almost every year for 10 years,” says CIW leader Greg Asbed. “But as we put one bad person behind bars, another would pop up, then another behind them. After several years we realised that successful prosecutions were not successful in the fight against slavery.”

Having targeted farm owners, CIW realised that all the power was consolidated at the top of the supply chain. “Major buyers such as McDonald’s were distorting the market, able to demand ever lower prices at the bottom,” Asbed says. It launched the Campaign for Fair Food in 2001, calling for buyers to “take responsibility for the conditions they had a hand in creating”.

An early target was restaurant chain Taco Bell, which, having been boycotted under the slogan ‘Taco Bell makes Farm Workers poor’, signed up to CIW’s legally binding code of conduct. Since then, 14 major clients, including fast food giants McDonald’s, Burger King and Chipotle, grocery chains Walmart and Whole Foods, and three major food service companies have signed up to CIW’s Fair Food Program, which covers 90% of Florida’s tomato growers.

Because it is a worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) designed by workers themselves, it gets to the heart of the violations, says Asbed, unlike CSR, which has been designed to solve brands’ public relations crises.

The Fair Food Program has two key elements: legal agreements between CIW and the brands that commit to suspending purchase from farms in violation of the code; and a working-hours programme where workers teach each other their rights.

A complaint line is run by the Fair Food Standards Council, a third-party organisation that carries out deep audits, talking to a minimum of 50% of workers in any location. Any form of intimidation or coaching for audit interviews is a violation of the code. “Each worker is a frontline monitor, because they know what their rights are,” Asbed says.

Since the programme began, over 2,000 complaints have been investigated and resolved. Seven farms have been suspended for human rights violations, with four re-admitted after resolving issues. “We want farms to stay in the programme to protect workers,” says Asbed. “Being able to sell to the 14 buyers is enough for people to keep wanting to come back.” 

He claims the programme prevents sexual harassment and assault (80% of female farm workers had said they were subjected to this). Modern slavery and illegal recruitment fees have also been stamped out, although “only within the programme”, Asbed stresses.

The Fair Food Program model is now spreading to other regions and sectors. CIW has been supporting NGO Migrant Justice with a programme for dairy farmers in Vermont, and is in talks with worker groups in Israel and Australia.

“WSR is a win-win situation, solving the problems of all the actors – for growers it creates a stable, more productive workforce, and takes the risk out of their operations. And it solves the risk of reputational harm for the brands. It helps everyone along the chain,” Asbed says.  

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