Hidden in Plain Sight: The Fair Food Programme as best practice for addressing forced labour

4 August 2021
Research Innovation

Siobhán McGrath  | Assistant Professor, University of Durham
Fabiola Mieres  | Technical Officer, International Labour Organization

“The solution to modern day slavery has been right under our noses — real worker voice backed by market consequences.”

Greg Asbed, Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Efforts to combat trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery have not only expanded over the past two decades, but have also evolved. While cases involving sexual exploitation garnered the lion’s share of headlines in the early 2000’s, attention has since expanded to include a greater range of industries and forms of work — from agriculture to manufacturing and service work. Corporations have taken note of “supply chain slavery” scandals implicating well-known brands, as well as the spread of transparency legislation. In response, a dizzying number of organizations, companies and agencies have been taking some form of action to address these issues within supply chains. Yet, they often attempt to do so within dominant paradigms, such as the failed model of voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility measures. More broadly, insufficient attention is being paid to some best practices that have demonstrated efficacy in addressing various forms of labour exploitation. As we highlight in a recent journal article, the model of Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) — pioneered by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) — is just such an example of best practice.

As part of a consortium project on “addressing demand for trafficking,” our research sought to examine existing and new initiatives to address trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery in (and through) supply chains. We recruited the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to the project’s stakeholder advisory board because we were aware of their reputation. CIW is known as an organization that has managed to advance workers’ rights and improve conditions for farmworkers — a group that has been historically excluded from labour protections in the United States (both on paper and in practice). We also knew that the organization had been instrumental in successful prosecutions against forced labour. Data collection involved, first, compiling and analysing an inventory of all relevant supply chain initiatives we could identify. Second, it involved fieldwork-based research on the ground for three cases: construction in Qatar; electronics in Malaysia; and agriculture in the United States. CIW facilitated our access to the field for this latter case study.

 In this article, we will provide a brief background of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, as well as explain the core elements of WSR. We will also highlight the fact that CIW has addressed forced labour as part of a range of abuses faced by workers, rather than treating it as an isolated issue.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers

CIW was founded in 1993 as a worker-based human rights organization rooted within the town of Immokalee, a community of farmworkers located in southwest Florida where harsh and sometimes brutal working conditions were all too prevalent. CIW soon learned that negotiating with the workers’ direct employers (the “growers’) would only go so far in achieving their aims. Instead, they needed to develop strategies to pressure the brand-name companies who had the power and resources to make real change. In 2001, CIW launched the Campaign for Fair Food, beginning with a boycott of Taco Bell that leveraged the power of solidarity from consumer allies. A key demand of this campaign was to pay growers “a penny per pound” more, which was to be passed on directly to workers’ wages. In 2005, the campaign succeeded: parent company YUM Brands! signed the first Fair Food Agreement. Continued campaigning built on this success, leading to agreements with an additional 13 companies (comprised of fast-food chains, supermarkets and institutional food service providers).

The Fair Food Program (FFP), established in 2011, consolidated these agreements to secure human rights protections in the fields of participating farms. A Fair Food label was launched in 2014. With most of Florida’s tomato growers now part of the FFP, the program has been expanding to other states, additional crops and industries. The Hollywood Commission has even recently announced a partnership with CIW to combat sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. CIW is also a founding member of the WSR Network, which is composed of organizations working to implement WSR programs elsewhere — from Vermont to Lesotho. 

 Markus Spiske. Unsplash.

Worker-driven Social Responsibility

The achievements of the WSR model pioneered by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers include combatting forced labour and gender-based violence, as well as attaining widespread improvements in wages and working conditions. These achievements have been widely recognized by many institutions including the U.S. Department of State and the MacArthur Foundation. It is the combination of key elements that lends the FFP, and by extension the model of WSR, its effectiveness. The model, first and foremost, is worker-led. Workers are involved in drafting and updating the Fair Food Code of Conduct to ensure that it reflects on-the-ground realities and is relevant to their working lives. Additionally, ongoing worker-to-worker education includes trainings conducted “on-the-clock”, as well as health and safety committees on every farm. Workers are therefore equipped to serve as effective front-line monitors of the Code’s standards. This represents a genuine mechanism to ensure “worker voice” is incorporated in monitoring and implementation. Second, the Code is enforced by the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC), an independent third-party monitoring body that carries out regular audits and complaint-driven investigations. Workers further have access to a 24-hour toll-free complaint line staffed by multilingual FFSC investigators. The in-depth nature of FFSC’s monitoring is exemplified by their benchmark of interviewing “at least 50 per cent of workers present at all farm locations” during audits.

Third, and most unique, is an enforcement mechanism which results in significant consequences for severe and/or repeated violations of the Code. Participants have been suspended from the FFP when necessary. The consequence of suspension — no longer being able to sell to Participating Buyers — represents a true threat to growers’ bottom lines. This is a notable achievement in a context in which: a) public enforcement of employment standards is inadequate; and b) most labour laws were not designed for the realities of supply chain capitalism.

In addition to the elements above — all of which proponents of WSR rightly emphasize as essential — there is another aspect that is crucial to highlight in relation to Target 8.7 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The CIW’s vision of advancing workers’ human rights has incorporated anti-slavery within a wider set of goals. This is a crucial difference from many efforts to address supply chain slavery, which address the issue in isolation from other aspects of workers’ rights and working conditions. The cases of slavery uncovered by CIW emerge in contexts where violations of workers’ rights, harsh working conditions and assaults on workers’ dignity are normalized. Through the CIW’s work, forced labour is treated as a specific and egregious issue — but one which results from a wider political economy of agricultural work, and which can only be addressed within that context.

Significantly, our fieldwork coincided with a change in labour recruiting practices. Workers recruited from Mexico via the H-2A “guest worker” visa program began to be employed on FFP farms. Given that this program is renowned for abuse, it was perhaps unsurprising that FFSC audits identified problems, such as illegal recruitment fees, affecting this group of workers. What happened next demonstrates the resiliency of the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model. Informed by workers’ suggestions, the FFSC researched the issue of guest worker recruitment abuse, beginning with interviews of workers themselves and including a fact-finding trip to Mexico where they met with government agencies, trade unions and NGOs. As a result of this process, the Fair Food Code of Conduct now stipulates that recruitment of H-2A workers onto FFP farms is allowed only through the Mexican National Employment Service (SNE). The Code has also incorporated other issues of particular concern to H-2A workers, namely discrimination and retaliation through the H-2A recruitment and retention process itself. As some of those recruited to FFP farms through the H-2A programme are from indigenous communities, the FFSC has also been working with the SNE to ensure that pre-departure education on workers’ rights is provided in their primary languages. Consequently, in participating farms that hire H2A workers, conditions have improved enormously.

While the model of WSR needs to be adjusted to be effective in different geographical and industry contexts, it is already proving to be an adaptable and resilient model for addressing forced labour, along with other abuses, in supply chains. The model has been rightly celebrated, but more effort should be put into adopting this best practice more widely. Unfortunately, cases of supply chain slavery continue to come to light. It is time to apply the lessons of a model that has been “right under our noses”.  

This article has been prepared by Siobhán McGrath and Fabiola Mieres* as contributors to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

*The views expressed here are the sole responsibility of the author and do not reflect the official views of the ILO.

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