“You allow it or they fire you…” Fair Food Program Harassment Brief

Nely Rodriguez of the CIW (middle) looks on as Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei (right) of Miami attempts to persuade a Publix representative of the urgency of the human rights crisis in Florida’s fields and the importance of Publix’s support for the groundbreaking new human rights standards established by the CIW’s Fair Food Program — including strict prohibitions against sexual harassment backed by real and immediate market consequences — during April’s Fast for Fair Food. Rabbi Brian’s efforts fell on deaf ears, as one Publix representative recently proclaimed “We are not in agreement with fair food,” which would require the grocery giant to curtail purchases from suppliers found to be violating their workers’ fundamental human rights.

Recent sexual harassment settlement underscores severity of problem in the fields; New brief on the Fair Food Program’s approach demonstrates power of worker participation, market consequences in curbing abuse.

An article in the Miami Herald on the recent EEOC settlement for sexual harassment charges at a major Florida tomato grower (“Women farm workers win sex harassment case”) reminds readers — including tens of thousands of Publix customers and, surely, not a few Publix decision makers — of the harrowing and humiliating conditions faced by all too many female farmworkers in Florida’s fields for decades:

“While picking tomatoes for DiMare Ruskin, one of Florida’s largest growers, Catalina Ramirez says her crew leader would repeatedly ask her for sex, according to a lawsuit.

He would tell her he wanted to kiss her all over, and that she would regret turning down his advances because he is “well-endowed,” the lawsuit claims.

In the same Immokalee fields, Lucia Reyes says she was groped and sexually taunted by her male supervisor, according to the suit.

Both ended up without work. And both ended up filing complaints of sexual harassment with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.” read more

But today, thanks to the Fair Food Program and the support of the ten multi-billion dollar retail food corporations that have signed Fair Food agreements with the CIW, women working in the Florida’s tomato fields have new hope, and a new weapon, in the fight against harassment. And the Florida tomato industry is far better for it.

The Fair Food Program has published an issue brief on sexual harassment and the new mechanisms in place — from worker-to-worker education to immediate market consequences for violations of the Code — designed to establish structures of accountability for sexual harassment that will change “the norm in the fields… from impunity to accountability.”

You can find the new brief here. Here below is an excerpt:

scottrobertson-29.jpg“… Incidents of sexual harassment reported by female farmworkers to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) exemplify the ‘allow it or you’re fired’ norm women have faced when they have tried to complain of harassment through company channels. For example, one woman worker was fired along with her husband and son, and lost their company housing, after complaining to the company’s human resources office of a crewleader’s uninvited visits to her trailer in the early morning after her husband had left for work, during which the crewleader would make sexually suggestive comments to her and to her children. Later, when she was invited back to work because of difficulties filling her position, she was promised that she would not have to deal with that crewleader. In fact, the harassment escalated to include groping and an attempt to change her job so she would be under his direct supervision in the fields without the protection of others.  When she rejected that change, she was fired again. Throughout both periods of employment, the harassing crewleader was responsible for, and often withheld, payment of her wages. There are also accounts of supervisors who attempt to pressure young women workers into sexual relations by offering them easier jobs, and then fire them when they refuse.

These reports underscore the reality that, in order to provide female farmworkers meaningful protection, the norm in the fields must be changed from impunity to accountability. There must be immediate consequences for harassers as well as for companies who allow harassment to continue unchecked. Women reporting harassment must be protected from retaliation. Only a system creating such accountability can address sexual harassment effectively when it occurs, while providing an incentive for employers to prevent such harassment in the first place, creating a safer and more dignified workplace for women.

How can the necessary structures of accountability for sexual harassment be created in an industry in which the power imbalance between workers and employers has allowed such a pernicious, abusive culture to persist? The answer lies in addressing pervasive sexual harassment as a product of the severe disempowerment and marginalization of all farmworkers and creating new structures that reflect and institutionalize farmworker empowerment throughout the industry.

The CIW’s Fair Food Program (see textbox) is creating such new structures of accountability in the tomato industry in Florida. Along with a wage increase supported by a price premium paid by corporate purchasers of Florida tomatoes, the Fair Food Program is enforcing a human rights based Code of Conduct throughout the industry. The Fair Food Code of Conduct provides a new model for accountability in the agricultural industry generally and a new approach to sexual harassment and violence in the fields that has already proven effective.” read more

One final note: It’s not just the supermarket industry that is stalling on supporting human rights, as last week’s hugely successful Chipotle Day of Action reminded consumers across the country. Check out this great photo report on the Day of Action from Just Harvest USA, the folks who organized over two dozen actions, from Oakland, CA, to London, England! Check out the brief in its entirety for a detailed discussion of the unique human rights program that Publix, Stop & Shop, Giant, Kroger, and other grocery industry giants have refused to support, then take action to demand that your supermarket company put its purchasing power behind this unprecedented program for justice, sustainability, and human rights in Florida’s fields.