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

Bangladesh Factory Workers
Modern slavery tightly weaves into the fabric of agricultural labor and fast fashion factories all over the world. Globally, three out of every 1,000 people enter involuntary servitude. A disproportionate amount of these workers are women and children who experience multiple counts of abuse and workplace violations ranging from sexual harassment to wage extortion and rape. Many of these workers also do not receive the right or ability to form unions and ensure that their rights obtain protection: but some organizations are working to change this. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers emerged in 1993 in Immokalee, Florida by farmworkers who implemented community-based organizations to prevent agricultural workers from experiencing gender-based violence and human trafficking by their superiors. Their national consumer network, which started in 2000, boosts this organization, and it operates many programs, including the Fair Food Program and the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network, which has particularly aided Bangladesh factory workers.

The Fair Food Program

The Fair Food Program is a result of The Coalition of Immokalee Workers partnering with farmworkers, farmers, food distribution companies and supply chains to ensure that the rights of agricultural workers who grow the food that companies sell are protected and guaranteed sustainable living wages and humane working conditions. Founded in 2001, the Fair Food Program is a consumer-driven grassroots effort: farmworkers boycott companies that obtain their products from suppliers perpetuating inhumane agricultural working conditions until they agree to abide by the Fair Food Act, which has companies such as Walmart, Whole Foods, Chipotle, Burger King, McDonalds, Trader Joe’s and several other food and retail companies have signed.

Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network

The Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network formed as a response to the Corporate Social Responsibility Program (CSR). CSR emerged to monitor the effectiveness of ethical business practices, the protection of workers and oversight. However, the majority of corporations still view human rights violations and poor working conditions that their suppliers enforce as a public relations issue, rather than a violation of rights and safety. Thus, the Corporate Social Responsibility Program has failed to implement as it should, creating the need for an alternative program.

The Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network has been implemented in locations housing unethical labor practices, including agricultural fields in Florida and sweatshops in Bangladesh. Their mission statement states that protections for human rights must be “worker-driven, enforcement-focused, and based on legally binding commitments that assign responsibility for improving working conditions to the global corporations at the top of [the] supply chains.” The most important policies that distinguish this program from the Corporate Social Responsibility Program are that the workers must be the driving force in voicing concerns and effecting change, not the companies or corporate leaders. Participating brands and companies must sign legally-binding agreements with worker organizations and agree to provide appropriate compensation to agricultural workers, and stop doing business with companies that do not adhere to ethical standards of labor.

Bangladesh Factory Workers

Bangladesh is the second-largest clothing manufacturer after China. Textile factory workers in Bangladesh have benefited a great deal from the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility program by signing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement between IndustriALL Global Union, UNI Global Union and several Bangladeshi textile unions. The catalyst for this change was the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, which killed over 1,100 Bangladesh factory workers. The factory produced clothing for retail companies like Walmart, JCPenney, the Children’s Place and many other brands.

Over 190 brands and retailers have signed the Bangladesh Accord including Primark, Adidas, Arcadia Group, Deltex, Hugo Boss, Killtec Sport and H&M. The agreement requires safety training programs, protection of the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions, independent safety inspections, promoting Freedom of Association (FoA) and getting workers to utilize the Safety and Health Complaints mechanism.

Protecting Workers in the Face of COVID-19

COVID-19 has also been a serious hazard and roadblock for factory workers in Bangladesh. NPR reported in April 2020, that the pandemic has caused 1 million factory workers to lose their jobs, while a quarter of Bangladeshi citizens are already living below the poverty line.

Reuters reported in June 2020 that the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has recently opened a laboratory for garment workers to be tested for COVID-19 after the re-opening of factories, and is also being forced by the Accord to adhere by social distancing regulations while operating.

These regulations to protect the human rights of workers across the world are steps in the right direction. Through further implementation, the corporate supply chain could become a much more ethical place.

Isabel Corp
Photo: Unsplash