Fair Food Program front and center at international Women’s Forum in Milan!

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“Providing a model and inspiration to workers’ and human rights organizations around the world…”

Last week, in Milan, Italy, human rights leaders, CEOs and cultural icons gathered for the annual Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, coinciding with the 2015 Expo Milano.  Some 500 participants from across the globe came together to discuss issues relating to food systems, nutrition, and gender under the umbrella of the forum’s theme, “Nurturing a Sustainable Future.”

Among the key speakers for the weeklong event was the Fair Food Program’s own Judge Laura Safer Espinoza, Director of the Fair Food Standards Council, who presented along with small farmers and supply chain sustainability experts on the topic of women’s rights in global agriculture in the forum’s opening plenary.

Judge Laura’s in-depth discussion with a reporter from the Expo Milano’s news hub, Exponet, elegantly laid out the essential elements of Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR), offering the model as an effective tool for advancing the rights of women in the Florida tomato industry and beyond.  With the Fair Food Program’s expansion into new crops, new states, and new industries solidly underway, the WSR model stood out as a beacon of hope for women in low-wage industries across the world.  The presentation received enthusiastic applause and a flood of interest from audience members following the discussion.

Here below are some of the highlights of Judge Safer Espinoza’s conversation with Exponet. 

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Judge Laura Safer Espinoza:  First, I would like to salute the Women’s Forum and especially the conference organizers for this extraordinary gathering of dedicated and powerful women who have come together to address critical issues surrounding the world’s food supply.  I am particularly happy to be here to speak about a program of Worker-driven Social Responsibility whose proven results are providing a model and inspiration to workers’ and human rights organizations around the world. […]

[…] This structure has resulted in a win-win-win situation.

For growers, benefits include becoming an employer of choice, reducing turnover, preventing risks, improving management systems, and obtaining verification of ethical labor practices, thereby giving them a competitive edge with buyers.

For buyers from McDonald’s to Whole Foods, the benefits include transparency and elimination of supply chain risks at a time when consumers, in an age of instant information and communication, are increasingly demanding to know the conditions under which their products are produced.

For workers, the dramatic changes are innumerable.  In just four seasons, forced labor, violence and sexual assault have been eliminated from FFP farms.  A prompt and effective complaint mechanism that protects workers against retaliation has been implemented.  $20 million in Fair Food bonuses have been distributed to workers, accurate timekeeping systems have helped to eliminate wage theft and improvements in health and safety have been implemented, including provision of shade in the fields, and worker participation in Health and Safety Committees. 

Exponet:  Why is the Fair Food Program called a “Worker Social Responsibility program” and how does such a program differ from most corporate social responsibility programs?

Judge Laura Safer Espinoza:  To answer that question, we just have to think about what a Social Responsibility program would look like if workers could design it.

The Code of Conduct that growers agree to implement is not generic, but rather written by workers themselves, who are the only ones (aside from the abusers) who know how, when and where violations of their human rights take place in any particular industry.

We have effective education that is as deep and widespread as possible.  Workers receive Fair Food Program education at the point of hire, with materials created by farmworkers themselves.  CIW’s worker staff also carry out in-person worker-to-worker education at all FFP farms.  Over 125,000 workers have received FFP education.

Fair Food Program education session in South Georgia, June 2015
Fair Food Program education session in South Georgia as a part of the Program’s expansion beyond Florida (June 2015)

There is a monitoring process that provides a continuous flow of credible information.  Worker education has created thousands of worker-monitors who actively enforce their own rights in the workplace through the complaint system as well as their interactions with the Fair Food Standards Council.  The Council is a unique monitoring and enforcement organization solely dedicated to this program.  Our audits include interviews with more than 50 percent of workers at any given farm, providing a snapshot of conditions, while our 24/7 complaint line, answered live by the same auditors who know and understand the situations workers are calling about, provides an ongoing video feed.  We have resolved over 1,000 complaints, normally within days and almost always within a few weeks.

And we have an enforcement mechanism that is prompt and powerful.  Behind the Code’s provisions, including zero tolerance for forced labor, child labor, sexual assault and violence, stand the serious and effective market consequences of the program’s participating buyers.

Exponet: The Fair Food Program describes itself as “enforcement-obsessed.” Describe how monitoring and enforcement works in the Fair Food Program.

Judge Laura Safer Espinoza:  Unlike many social responsibility programs, compliance in the FFP is not merely aspirational.  Joining the program is always voluntary, but participation is based on detailed and legally binding agreements.  To remain a Participating Grower, compliance must be real and verified through the FFSC’s audit and complaint processes.  Multiple opportunities with reasonable time frames are provided to come into compliance, but if that does not happen, those suppliers can no longer sell to Participating Buyers.  This has provided tremendous incentives for self-policing, resulting in many of the gains I have outlined.

Exponet: What are the program’s plans for expansion?

Judge Laura Safer Espinoza:  As we speak, FFSC auditors and CIW education team members are traveling to five new states up the East Coast of the U.S. and plans are going forward to expand to other crops this fall.  Beyond this, workers in other sectors as diverse as dairy workers in Vermont, construction workers in Texas, and those seeking to implement the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accords are looking to the FFP as a model.  Worker organizations and governments in several other countries have also reached out for advice and training.

New buyers are seeking to join the program, with and without consumer campaigns, as they realize the tremendous value of this risk prevention model.  As Maria stated in her kind introduction, human rights monitors from the United Nations to the Clinton Global Initiative and the White House have also recognized that worker participation and real and effective market consequences are the keys that unlock real and verifiable results.

Check back soon for more from the (global!) movement for Fair Food!