“After #MeToo, This Group Has Nearly Erased Sexual Harassment in Farm Fields”…

The Fair Food Program Education Team leads a discussion on sexual harassment with workers on a Participating Grower’s farm in South Carolina.

Reporter embeds with Fair Food Program Audit and Education teams, documents unprecedented progress in combating sexual harassment and other labor rights violations in extraordinary new article published by Civil Eats

Participating Grower: “This is the first real audit organization that I’ve ever seen.  You can’t fake your way through it.”

Farm Supervisor, on prevalence of sexual harassment before Fair Food Program: “We didn’t notice, like cavemen didn’t notice that killing someone with a rock was bad.”

But first, a word on COVID-19…

Before we begin today’s post on the extraordinary new article by Vera Chang published last week in the online magazine Civil Eats, we wanted to share a few thoughts on the situation we are all struggling with today, the COVID-19 pandemic. 

These are trying times, there is no getting around it.  We are heading into uncharted waters, and the uncertainty is frightening.  Life in the time of this pandemic will be vastly different from what we have ever known, and exactly how, or how long that will be the case, no one knows.  

We here in Immokalee are confronting a particularly vexing paradox.  For nearly three decades, we have faced – and beaten – some very long odds against some very longstanding social ills, from forced labor to sexual assault in the fields.  And we have done so by coming together, by bringing the community together here in Immokalee – first in a back room borrowed from the local Catholic church, then in our own community center – to study those problems and seek new solutions; then by building bridges between the farmworker community and consumers across the country, leaving Immokalee to travel in buses and vans across the country, from Los Angeles to New York, to harness the power necessary to implement those solutions; and finally by joining forces with others across the vast food industry to build a program on farms that today spans the East Coast and touches tens of thousands of workers to address – and end – the abuses that have plagued the fields for generations.

But the very logic of our life as an organization – the logic that tells us that, when we come together, when we bring the farmworker community together, bring farmworkers and consumers together, bring the industry together, there is no problem so big that we can’t overcome it – is turned on its head today by this virus.  Public health experts tell us that the solution to slowing, and eventually defeating, this pandemic is social distancing, breaking the bonds between people along which the virus travels and thrives.  And so, the very key to our strength and success as an organization, building and nourishing bonds between people to build a new future, is now, in some way, the very thing we must turn away from to make it through these uncertain times.  For once we can’t just call a meeting, break this problem down, and build our solution – and that idea goes against our every instinct.

And yet…

Despite this apparent paradox, on a still deeper level, the pandemic serves as a reminder that we do not, we can not, live alone in this world if we hope to survive.  No country comes “first” when all are threatened by a virus that knows no borders.  In this moment when our world is facing an unprecedented public health crisis, we are more aware than ever of our connection to one another and our dependence upon one another.  To borrow Dr. King’s metaphor, we live in a “world house” and if we are to protect that house, we must protect it together.  That means making difficult decisions, and it means marshaling our collective resources, creativity, and intelligence to turn the tide of this pandemic.  In Immokalee, that means coordinating with local public health officials and emergency services personnel to lend our resources to the concerted efforts now underway here, efforts informed by the experiences of other communities around the globe that have already faced this terrible threat.  To survive these trying times, we must learn from one another, and we must share the lessons we learn in fighting this awful virus if we are to defeat it, from Wuhan, China, to Milan, Italy, from Washington State to Immokalee, Florida. 

And so – though we may have to adapt our methods, and do so from a distance – it turns out that the approach that the CIW has taken for three decades still holds.  When all actors in the supply chain work for the human rights of farmworkers – farmworkers, growers, buyers, consumers, and investors – we have been able to stop and prevent sexual harassment and assault, forced labor and other horrendous abuses that infect US agriculture outside the program.  And when all of us work together – even if it means staying physically apart in the interim – we will be able to stop this virus and return to the lives we knew before. 

So please read today’s post as a reminder of the incredible power of what we can do when we come together, no matter how badly the odds may seem to be stacked against us…

“People have rights here”…

Those are the words of Gloria Olivo, a tomato harvester at Lipman Family Farms.  Lipman, the largest tomato grower in the country, is a key partner in the Fair Food Program, and it is to Lipman’s farms on the sea islands off South Carolina’s coast that Vera Chang traveled last summer with the CIW Education Team and a team of auditors from the Fair Food Standards Council to report on the Fair Food Program and it’s unique success in fighting sexual harassment and assault in agriculture. 

Workers harvest tomatoes on a Lipman Family Farms field in South Carolina last summer.

The result is a simultaneously wide-ranging and penetrating report that is the best look yet into the thinking, mechanisms, and people behind the most effective human rights program in US agriculture today.  And as if that weren’t enough, the photos accompanying the article are stunning.  Here is an album of the photos:


It is a long-form article, very much worth the time to sit and absorb.  So rather than try to summarize the article with key excerpts, we will simply share some of its highlights – great quotes and insightful passages – just to give you enough of a taste to entice you to read the whole thing.  Here below are your highlights.  Once you’ve read them, be sure to head on over to Civil Eats to read “After #MeToo, This Group Has Nearly Erased Sexual Harassment in Farm Fields” in its entirety!

On the quality of the FFP’s audits:

An FFSC auditor interviews a worker at Lipman Family Farms in South Carolina.

Like detectives, FFSC auditors piece together fact-rich tapestries of narrative and observation to get what they call “a high-resolution snapshot” of workers’ experiences and the power structures in the field. FFSC interviews all levels of supervisors and at least half the workforce at any given location, well above industry practice. 
“It’s the first real audit organization that I’ve ever seen,” Lipman’s Chief Farming Officer, Toby Purse, said. “You can’t fake your way through it.” FFSC’s audit reports are a whopping 60 pages.

” They don’t wash over things,” Purse said with tempered gravity. “They’re a true partner that you can show your vulnerabilities, and they won’t rub salt in the wound. They’ll help you work through it.” … 

… “This company would not look the way it does today if we weren’t partners with the FFP,” Purse said matter-of-factly. He characterized the changes the program catalyzed as a “paradigm shift,” but said that they’d been worthwhile.

“This is probably, in my experience, the most roundly complete anti-gender-based violence effort,” said Aaron Polkey, staff attorney with Futures without Violence, a nonprofit that was instrumental in the creation of the anti-sexual harassment training video for the agricultural industry. It “cuts off the oxygen that fuels sexual violence, in an environment where it would otherwise run hidden and rampant.”

On the culture change on FFP farms:

When farmworkers have the opportunity to transform their work culture on their own terms, they seize it. CIW farmworkers have devised a unique mix of education, monitoring, and enforcement mechanisms that prevent—not just remedy—sexual violence at work.
The FFP has begun to create a culture of reporting problems through vigilantly protecting workers from retaliation through legally-binding agreements with real economic consequences for growers. The real threat of withholding corporate sales acts as the hammer in enforcement of the FFP’s Code.

I’d actually first heard about Lipman from Gloria Olivo, a Florida tomato picker, who quit work at a packing house, a work site generally favored over the fields because of the shade and greater labor protections, to harvest at Lipman. “Before I joined the company, I’d always moved from one farm to the next. There wasn’t much respect,” she told me. “People have rights here.” Olivo, a sexual abuse survivor, has been at Lipman for the past six years now, an extraordinarily long tenure in migrant labor.

“We didn’t notice [how common sexual harassment was], like cavemen didn’t notice that killing somebody with a rock was bad,” [farm labor contractor Refugio “Cuco” Flores] says when comparing the current moment to before the FFP launched. …

… I asked what changed for him. “The Fair Food Program,” Flores replied. “We got educated, and it made sense.”


On the redressing of the historical power imbalance in agriculture:

Workers learn about their rights under the Fair Food Program during an education session on a South Carolina farm.

The FFP has begun to create a culture of reporting problems through vigilantly protecting workers from retaliation through legally-binding agreements with real economic consequences for growers. The real threat of withholding corporate sales acts as the hammer in enforcement of the FFP’s Code.

Sexual abuse is endemic in any degenerated labor landscape, explained Ambassador Luis C. deBaca, former director of the Office for Sex Offender Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking during the Obama Administration. “Anytime you have people under the control of their bosses, there will end up being sexual manifestations of that power differential,” deBaca said, noting that the secretive, sensitive, and stigmatized nature of sexual violence—which impacts both men and women—makes it hard to uncover. Because of the nature of these crimes, there are almost never eyewitnesses, and victims are nearly always reticent to speak out…

… Back at Lipman Family Farms, Rodríguez explained that the program works because workers are empowered to monitor their own rights. This shifts the culture away from secrecy. The first step in doing so: education.

The 2016 EEOC Select Taskforce on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace called the FFP a “radically different accountability mechanism.” Ambassador Luis C. deBaca said that the FFP’s concept of workers controlling their own program for remedy and monitoring their own rights is basic but unusual—revolutionary, even—because it’s rarely, if ever, done.

We don’t have space to include all the highlights here, so be sure to head over to Civil Eats to read the article in its entirety.  Given the current moment, we all might just have some unexpected time on our hands, what better way to spend it than with a story full of hope and real change!

Be safe.