US Department of Labor Grant Promotes Farmworker Rights Abroad

farmworker rightsIn February 2023, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a $2.5 million grant to promote farmworker rights abroad. The funding will go toward evaluating and expanding the Fair Food Program (FFP) model. Specifically, the funds will support a pilot project in cut flower farms in three countries — Chile, Mexico and South Africa. In an industry rife with issues like human trafficking, poor and risky working conditions and sexual violence and harassment, the FFP offers a promising model for ensuring the health and safety of farmworkers worldwide.

What is the Fair Food Program?

The FFP is a legally-binding agreement between workers, growers and buyers. As a Worker-Driven Social Responsibility (WSR) initiative, the FFP “is designed, monitored and enforced by the very workers whose rights it is intended to protect.” Participating growers and buyers commit to respecting the rights outlined in the FFP worker-crafted “Code of Conduct” and other measures ensuring the health and safety of farmworkers.

Growers enjoy purchasing preferences from some of the world’s largest retail buyers, including Whole Foods and Walmart. Further, both growers and buyers benefit from the use of the FFP certification mark on qualifying goods. That is because the certificate attracts consumers in search of ethically-sourced food. Finally, increased worker retention, decreased worker compensation claims and decreased administrative and legal fees incentivize growers to participate.

The program emerged from years of grassroots labor organizing by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a worker-based human rights organization representing tomato industry workers in Immokalee, Florida. What began in 1993 as a small group fighting for fair pay grew into a nationally and internationally lauded organization. The CIW played a crucial role in freeing more than 1,000 enslaved farmworkers in the Southeastern United States.  Significantly, it created the FFP in 2001 as a framework for preventing the abuses its anti-slavery and fair food campaigns continuously work to address.

Historic Success of the Program

Overseen by the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC), the FFP has proved itself as an extremely successful and scalable model for protecting farmworker rights. In addition to partnering with retailers as buyers, the FFP partners with growers who employ farmworkers across 11 states. Within the past year, the FFP has expanded into consumer packaged goods. This opens the door to a wide range of food products. Finally, the program has received numerous awards and recognitions, including the MacArthur Genius Award, the U.S. Presidential Medal and a James Beard Foundation Award.

Building on the success of FFP, the FFSC’s grant from the U.S. Department of Labor will enable further international growth. By identifying barriers and opportunities, the pilot will determine the feasibility of expanding the FFP model.

The Importance of Protecting Farmworker Rights

Just as labor rights are inextricable from human rights, fair compensation and safe working conditions are tied to poverty reduction efforts. Though the International Labour Organization (ILO) reports a decline in the proportion of working people living in extreme and moderate poverty since the turn of the century,  21% of the world’s workers fell into one of these two categories in 2018.  Extremely poor people live in households with a per capita income of less than $1.90 a day and moderately poor people live in households with a per capita income between $1.90 and $3.30 a day. Protecting worker rights, particularly through WSR programs like the FFP, presents a powerful opportunity to reduce poverty.

Promoting farmworker rights also results in meaningful commercial benefits. Because employee retention dramatically increases when workers are treated fairly and have a voice in their workplace, it follows that failure to protect the rights of workers can lead to lower levels of high-skilled employees, reducing business stability. Studies show that “in their criteria for choosing countries in which to invest, foreign investors rank workforce quality and political and social stability above low labor costs,” the ILO notes.

Initiatives such as the FFP also emerge as important components of several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) given farmworkers’ on-the-ground, intimate knowledge of agricultural practices. A joint report by the ILO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the International Union of Food and Allied Workers’ Associations makes this connection abundantly clear.  The report urges governments and organizations to acknowledge the crucial role of agricultural workers and their unions in sustainable development and sustainable agriculture goal-setting and decision-making.

Global Coalition to Protect Labor Rights

This $2.5 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Labor underscores the department’s push to protect labor rights, including farmworker rights in the U.S. and abroad. By promoting initiatives like the FFP, the department joins a broad team of organizations and government agencies across the world working to eradicate human rights abuses in global supply chains; create pathways out of poverty and ultimately build a stronger, more sustainable world economy.

– Hannah Carrigan
Photo: Flickr