Consciousness + Commitment = Change
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a worker-based human rights organization internationally recognized for its achievements in the fields of corporate social responsibility, community organizing, and sustainable food. The CIW is also a leader in the growing movement to end human trafficking due to its groundbreaking work to combat modern-day slavery and other labor abuses common in agriculture. The CIW works in three broad and overlapping spheres:
The Campaign for Fair Food
The CIW’s national Campaign for Fair Food educates consumers on the issue of farm labor exploitation – its causes and solutions – and forges alliances between farmworkers and consumers in an effort to enlist the market power of major corporate buyers to help end that exploitation. Since 2001, the campaign has combined creative, on-the-ground actions with cutting edge online organizing to win Fair Food Agreements with twelve multi-billion dollar food retailers, including Walmart, McDonald’s, Subway, Sodexo and Whole Foods, establishing more humane farm labor standards and fairer wages for farmworkers in their tomato suppliers’ operations.
The Fair Food Program
In 2010, the Campaign for Fair Food resulted in the creation of the CIW’s Fair Food Program (FFP), a groundbreaking model for social responsibility based on a unique partnership among farmworkers, Florida tomato growers, and participating buyers. Under the FFP, the CIW conducts worker education sessions, held on-the-farm and on-the-clock, on the new labor rights set forth in the Fair Food Code of Conduct; the Fair Food Standards Council, a third-party monitor created to ensure compliance with the FFP, conducts regular audits and carries out ongoing complaint investigation and resolution; and participating buyers pay a “penny per pound” premium which tomato growers pass onto workers as a line-item bonus on their regular paychecks (Between January 2011 and May 2014, over $14 million in Fair Food Premiums were paid into the Program).
The FFP standards are backed by the market consequences established in the CIW’s Fair Food Agreements, in which participating buyers commit to buy Florida tomatoes only from growers in good standing with the FFP, and to cease purchases from growers who fail or refuse to comply with the Program. The FFP has been called “one of the great human rights success stories of our day” in a Washington Post op-ed, “the best workplace monitoring program” in the U.S. in the New York Times, and a “smart mix of tools” that “could serve as a model elsewhere in the world” by the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights.
The CIW’s Anti-Slavery Campaign has uncovered, investigated, and assisted in the prosecution of numerous multi-state, multi-worker farm slavery operations across the Southeastern U.S., helping liberate over 1,200 workers held against their will; pioneered the worker-centered approach to slavery prosecution; played a key role in the passage of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act; and co-founded the national Freedom Network USA and the Freedom Network Training Institute, which is regularly attended by local, state and federal law enforcement officials. The implementation of the Fair Food Program has ushered in the newest phase of the CIW’s anti-slavery efforts, that of prevention, whereby the market consequences built into the FFP, including zero tolerance for forced labor, encourage participating growers to actively police their own operations, and the worker-to-worker education program at the heart of the FFP informs and empowers tens of thousands of workers to serve as monitors to identify and expose slavery operations wherever they might be present.
We are all leaders: Our history
The CIW began organizing in 1993 as a small group of workers meeting weekly in a room borrowed from a local church to discuss how to better their community and their lives (for more background, check out Facts & Figures about Farmworkers). Combining three community-wide work stoppages with intense public pressure – including an unprecedented month-long hunger strike by six members in 1998 and an historic 234-mile march from Ft. Myers to Orlando in 2000 – the CIW’s early organizing ended over twenty years of declining wages in the tomato industry.
By 1998, farmworkers had won industry-wide raises of 13-25% (translating into several million dollars annually for the community in increased wages) and a new-found political and social respect from the outside world. Those raises brought the tomato picking piece rate back to pre-1980 levels (the piece rate had fallen below those levels over the course of the intervening two decades), but wages remained below poverty level and continuing improvement was slow in coming.
While continuing to organize for fairer wages, the CIW also turned its attention to attacking involuntary servitude. Over the past 15 years, 9 major investigations and federal prosecutions have freed over 1,200 Florida farmworkers from captivity and forced labor, leading one US Attorney to call these fields “ground zero for modern slavery.”
The CIW was key in the discovery, investigation, and prosecution of seven of those operations. Through these efforts, they helped pioneer anti-trafficking work in the US, contributing to the formation of the Department of Justice Anti-Trafficking Unit and the passage of the landmark Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000.
In 2001, having won some wage increases for Florida tomato pickers and investigated some of the country’s earliest cases of modern-day slavery, the CIW did a deep analysis of the industry to understand where the power to make true systemic change resided. It became clear that the corporate food industry as a whole – companies such as current campaign targets Kroger, Publix, and Ahold USA – purchased a tremendous volume of fruits and vegetables, leveraging its buying power to demand the lowest possible prices from its suppliers, in turn exerting a powerful downward pressure on wages and working conditions in these suppliers’ operations.
With this realization, the Coalition turned a new page in their organizing, launching the first-ever farmworker boycott of a major fast-food company – the national boycott of Taco Bell – calling on the fast-food giant to take responsibility for human rights abuses in the fields where its produce is grown and picked. Over its four years, the Taco Bell boycott gained broad student, religious, labor, and community support. In March 2005, amidst growing pressure, Taco Bell agreed to meet all of the CIW’s demands to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers in its supply chain.
Following the successful conclusion of the Taco Bell boycott, the national network of allies that had helped carry that campaign to victory consolidated into key allies organizations, the Student / Farmworker Alliance and Interfaith Action, signaling to the corporate food industry that the Campaign for Fair Food would not stop at Taco Bell. The Fair Food ally organizations became a powerful new voice for the respect of human rights in this country’s food industry and for an end to the relentless exploitation of Florida’s farmworkers.
In April of 2007 – in the culmination of a two-year battle with the largest restaurant chain in the world, McDonald’s – the Campaign for Fair Food took an important new step forward. With an announcement at the Carter Center in Atlanta, McDonald’s and the CIW reached a landmark accord that met and expanded the standards set in the Taco Bell agreement.
A year later, Burger King became the third fast food giant to agree to work with the CIW. Soon after, the campaign broke new ground with its first agreement in the supermarket industry when leading organic foods retailer Whole Foods Market agreed to do the same. By the end of 2008, Subway, the largest fast food purchaser of Florida tomatoes, had also come to the table.
The CIW then turned its focus to the food service provider industry, and agreements with Bon Appétit Management Co., Compass Group, Aramark and Sodexo followed in 2009-2010. In early 2012, Trader Joe’s became the second grocer to reach an agreement. In October 2012, after a six-year campaign, Chipotle Mexican Grill became the 11th company to put their weight behind the Fair Food Program, marking a significant moment for the food movement at large as worker rights were upheld as an essential component of sustainability. By this time, the Student / Farmworker Alliance and Interfaith Action had been joined by Just Harvest USA, a key ally organization comprised of food movement leaders and grassroots organizations. Finally, in a groundbreaking moment in January 2014, Walmart joined the Fair Food Program, putting its unmatched market power behind the Program, and pledging to expand the Program beyond tomatoes and beyond Florida.
Amidst the growing power of the Campaign for Fair Food, the CIW also continued the fight against modern-day slavery. One of the most recent prosecuted slavery cases to date was U.S. vs. Navarrete (2008), involving dozens of tomato pickers from Florida up to South Carolina. The case, a stark reminder of the work left to be done, was centered around the abuses of the Navarrete family, who “plead guilty to beating, threatening, restraining, and locking workers in trucks to force them to work as agricultural laborers.” Just two years later in 2010, the CIW’s extraordinary work in this case as well as the many others in agriculture, the U.S. Department of State awarded the CIW’s Laura Germino with the Trafficking in Persons Hero award. Ambassador Lou CdeBaca cited the CIW as the “pioneer” of the unique multi-sectoral approach to fighting modern-day slavery, “tapping NGO’s, law enforcement, labor inspectors, and the survivors themselves” to address the issue.
In late 2010, the CIW signed a groundbreaking agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to extend the CIW’s Fair Food principles – including a strict code of conduct, a cooperative complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process – to over 90% of the Florida tomato industry. This watershed moment ended a 15-year impasse and was hailed in the New York Times as “possibly the most successful labor action in the US in 20 years.” With that agreement, the Fair Food Program was born. Today, bolstered by the independent auditing and oversight of the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC), the Fair Food Program – which emerged from the successful Campaign for Fair Food and seeks to affirm the human rights of tomato workers and improve the conditions under which they labor – has begun an unprecedented transformation of farm labor conditions in Florida’s fields.
Millions of additional dollars are flowing into the industry each year from participating buyers, to be passed on by the growers to their workers to increase wages, with $10 million paid into the Program in the first three seasons alone. Audits are revealing and addressing systemic weaknesses that in the past led to worker abuse. Workers receive ongoing education from the CIW – on the farm and on the clock – about their new-found rights and responsibilities under the Program. And complaints from the fields are investigated and resolved by the FFSC.
But the pace, depth, and sustainability of this transformation will ultimately depend on the participation of all the major purchasers of Florida’s tomatoes. Despite widespread support for the innovative, collaborative solution at the heart of the Fair Food Program, the supermarket industry (with the notable exceptions of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s) has yet to do its part, and is thus the one remaining obstacle in the way of long-awaited, sustainable change in the fields.
Immokalee today: Nothing is impossible…
Over the past several years, through the Campaign for Fair Food and our anti-slavery work, and culminating with the emergence of the Fair Food Program, Immokalee has evolved from being one of the poorest, most politically powerless communities in the country to become today an important national and statewide presence with forceful, committed leadership directly from the base of our community – young, migrant workers forging a future of livable wages and modern labor relations in Florida’s fields.
The breadth of the CIW’s work is reflected in the range of national and international recognition it has received, including: the 2013 Freedom from Want Medal from the Roosevelt Institute; the 2012 WhyHunger Food Sovereignty Award; 2012 National Resources Defense Council’s Food Justice Award; from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the 2010 Hero Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery Award; the 2009 Benny Award from the Business Ethics Network; the 2007 Anti-Slavery Award from Anti-Slavery International of London; the 2006 Paul and Sheila Wellstone Award; a 2005 commendation from FBI Director Robert Mueller, the 2005 Harry Chapin Self-Reliance Award from World Hunger Year, the 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award; and the 1998 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.