OP/ED: “An astonishing journey from Lesotho to Immokalee and back”…

Representatives from women’s organizations and unions based in Lesotho gather for a photo with representatives of the CIW, the Fair Food Standards Council, Workers Rights Consortium and the Solidarity Center in Immokalee to commemorate a two-day exchange in November of last year to study the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model and the CIW’s Fair Food Program. The visitors returned to Lesotho to negotiate a groundbreaking WSR agreement – announced in August – to fight sexual harassment and gender-based violence in the garment industry there.

“The Worker-driven Social Responsibility model has now taken root on three continents — Asia, Africa and North America, supported by allies but driven by workers themselves building a global movement“;

Cathy Albisa, Executive Director of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), celebrates worker-to-worker collaboration behind newest front in expansion of the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model in powerful Op/Ed

Two months ago, we shared the news on this site of an inspiring breakthrough for workers fighting sexual harassment and assault at work in Lesotho’s massive garment industry.  A coalition of women’s rights organizations and unions there announced a landmark agreement struck with Lesotho’s largest garment factory and several multinational apparel brands, including Levi Strauss & Co. and the Children’s Place.  The agreement was based broadly on the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model, harnessing the brands’ purchasing power to protect apparel factory workers from gender-based violence on the job.  Specifically, the agreement was modeled on the CIW’s Fair Food Program (FFP) and its uniquely successful mechanisms for investigating worker complaints and enforcing compliance with workers’ fundamental human rights.  

At the time we wrote of the agreement:

Members of the CIW Worker-to-Worker Education Team demonstrate the use of Popular Education techniques employed in the Fair Food Program for conveying the right to work free of sexual harassment to workers on FFP farms during last year’s visit to Immokalee by a delegation of representatives from the women’s organizations and unions that signed last week’s groundbreaking agreement. Worker education is a critical element in any WSR agreement, as workers must have a clear understanding of their rights in order to play their role as the front line monitors of those rights that ensures compliance with human rights standards and, ultimately, prevention of longstanding abuses.

… Clearly, the extraordinary news out of Lesotho this week would not have been possible without an extraordinary struggle, and an equally extraordinary collaboration among a wide range of worker and human rights organizations in support of that struggle.  It is news that we are proud to be a part of, and we look forward to continuing to contribute to the implementation and development of a program that will bring long-overdue justice to more than 10,000 workers in southern Africa.

It is truly remarkable to contemplate the broader meaning of this moment, and perhaps sometime soon we will take a deeper dive into the significance of this latest front in the global expansion of the WSR model.  

But for now, just consider this: Some of the poorest, least powerful workers in this country – farmworkers divided by language, nationality and ethnicity, immigrant workers in a country itself deeply divided about their presence and contribution here – managed somehow over the course of two decades of struggle to forge a new form of worker power, a new paradigm for protecting vulnerable workers’ fundamental human rights at the bottom of global supply chains.  Worker-driven Social Responsibility, that new paradigm, emerged fully formed for the first time in Immokalee, a dusty, dirt-poor, crossroads town at the top of the Everglades that just a few years ago was dubbed “ground zero for modern-day slavery” by federal prosecutors.  A more unlikely birthplace for, in WRC’s words, “one of the most inspiring labor rights success stories of this decade” – or as it was put in a different moment in the pages of the Washington Post, “one of the great human rights success stories of our day” – would be hard to imagine.  

Yet today, that battle to end forced labor, sexual assault, violence against workers and so many more abuses in Florida’s fields has not only spread up the East Coast, into new crops and new industries, and is continuing to build out across this country, but it is now inspiring workers from across oceans to marshal the same forces and build the same structures to monitor and enforce their own rights in vastly different industries… (read more)  

Well, this week Cathy Albisa, Executive Director of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), beat us to the punch in taking that “deeper dive into the significance” of the exciting news from Lesotho!  

In an op/ed published this week in the online news digest Medium, Cathy took readers behind the headlines to the remarkable backstory of collaboration between farmworkers in the US South and factory workers in Southern Africa that led to new hope for an end to longstanding and widespread abuse for over ten thousand garment workers.  She began her story, titled “The future belongs to globalists,” with a quick reminder of some of the key details of, and catalysts behind, the groundbreaking agreement:

… The agreement will implement a worker-driven social responsibility program focusing on rampant sexual abuse in the garment industry in Lesotho and create accountability for the global corporations that have been profiting from that abuse. The agreement was catalyzed by a powerful in-depth investigation led by the Workers’ Rights Consortium based in DC. The “Me Too” moment also played a role in moving the brands. It would certainly not have come to pass without the first, and the second created a far more receptive context to find a serious solution.

She then turned to what she called “the third element in this powerful story”, the collaboration between workers in Immokalee and their counterparts in Lesotho:

But the third element in this powerful story is one of workers reaching across the globe to challenge corporate power. An astonishing journey from Lesotho to Immokalee and back helped build the path to this particular agreement. This story tells us the future we can build belonging to globalist workers.

From there, she took a look at the all too common problem of sexual violence facing low-wage workers around the globe, and at the Fair Food Program’s success in ending that violence in fields along the US East Coast:

… Sexual violence, abuse and harassment are rife around the world in low-wage workplaces. In corporate supply chains, in which low-wage workers labor at the very bottom so profit can be made by the top, it is the norm. The groundbreaking Fair Food Program led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and established in 2010 to protect the rights of farmworkers on the US eastern seaboard’s tomato industry created a stunning exception to this landscape of abuse. Over the space of only a few years, sexual harassment has dropped dramatically.

While it is well-documented that 80 percent of female farmworkers in US agriculture experience sexual harassment, workers on 75% of FFP farms reported no instances of sexual harassment of any kind, during the Program’s most recent season of implementation and enforcement. For the first time, likely in centuries of abuse of farmworker women on the eastern seaboard, in the first two years of FFP enforcement, two serial sexual predators were fired and barred from the industry as a result of the program. Since the start of the FFP, 42 supervisors have been disciplined for sexual harassment as a result of complaint resolutions or corrective actions that addressed audit findings. As a result, cases of rape and quid pro quo demands have disappeared…

She closed her op/ed with the story of the visit of worker representatives from the factories of Lesotho to the CIW’s community center in Immokalee and the exchange that kicked off a collaboration that will continue in the months and years ahead – and with a message of hope that speaks to the tremendous promise of the WSR model:

… When core organizations from the movement for the rights of garment workers around the world came together with this Fair Food Movement, formally under the umbrella of the Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network (WSR-N), the seeds of the Lesotho journey were planted. Looking for solutions and a model for the soul shattering abuse in the Lesotho factories, the Lesotho coalition visited Immokalee to learn and see this worker-driven solution in action. Shared problems give rise to shared solutions, and the farmworkers of Florida opened up their program and expertise for their transnational brethren. Together with the Solidarity Center, they will play a key role in assisting implementation going forward. As corporations merge and consolidate to become very more powerful, so must our movements. The victory emerging from the coming together of these movements is indisputable evidence of this need.

The Worker-driven Social Responsibility model has now taken root in three continents — Asia, Africa and North America, supported by allies but driven by workers themselves building a global movement. It is a hopeful and inspiring example of the global and just future we can build.

You can read the op/ed in its entirety here.