US Department of Labor press release: “Los Villatoros Harvesting LLC employed workers to harvest watermelons for Carlton Farms Inc., operating as Sun Fresh Farms Inc. in Wauchula, Florida, for sale to Walmart and Kroger locations. In Indiana, the employer provided crews for Cardinal Farms in Oaktown and Wonning Melons in Vincennes to pack melons for sale through a distributor to chains including Kroger, Schnucks and Sam’s Clubs… The prosecution is part of an investigation begun in 2017 by federal agencies in several states. Workers who escaped their unhealthy living and forced labor conditions first reported the violations to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based human rights organization in Florida…”

US Wage and Hour Division Regional Administrator Juan Coria in Atlanta: “Human trafficking is a scourge caused by unscrupulous employers who profit by exploiting vulnerable workers, many of whom are afraid to complain about the awful situation in which they find themselves.” 

Last month, we shared the news of the successful prosecution of a multi-state forced labor operation in which hundreds of farmworkers were brutalized by a criminal organization led by Bladimir Moreno and his co-conspirators.  Moreno was the ringleader of a labor contracting firm that, over the course of several years, brought workers to this country on temporary work visas, forced those workers into insurmountable debts, isolated them on labor camps surrounded by barbed wire, and threatened them with arrest and deportation if they tried to flee. 

Last week, in a major press release, the United States Department of Labor identified several large grocery chains that bought — and sold — the produce picked by these exploited workers, profiting from their suffering, companies including the longtime Fair Food Program holdout Kroger.

Last week’s press release from the Department of Labor — which we encourage you to read in full, below — is remarkable for one simple reason: While most forced labor prosecutions end with the announcement of long prison sentences for the farm labor bosses directly involved in the brutal schemes, this release took the unusual step of tracking the path of the produce picked in those brutal conditions all the way to the top of the trillion-dollar food industry, to the retail food chains that have, for far too long, escaped accountability for their role in the generations-old scourge of forced labor in our country’s fields. 

Make no mistake, forced labor is a profitable business, and it is on the rise today.  And with each farmworker forced into modern-day slavery, the crops planted, picked, and packed by their hands make their way through this country’s market and eventually onto our tables via multi-billion dollar food corporations like Kroger.  Those corporations carefully curate their brands’ reputations as social responsibility leaders when in fact they stubbornly, and unconscionably, turn their backs on the Fair Food Program, the one proven solution for not just fixing, but actually preventing, a long list of farm labor abuses, from forced labor to sexual harassment and assault, systemic wage theft, violence, humiliation, and harsh and dangerous working conditions.  As a result, and as once again documented in the Moreno case, countless farmworkers at the end of those company’s produce supply chains continue to needlessly suffer at the hand of their farm bosses, day after day, year after year.

In light of these latest revelations, some historical context on Kroger’s longstanding refusal to join the Fair Food Program is, perhaps, in order.  Here is an extended excerpt from an exchange between the CIW’s Julia Cruz, a farmworker herself and member of the Fair Food Program’s worker-to-worker education team, and Kroger’s CEO, Rodney McMullen, at the 2015 Kroger shareholder meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The question, and Mr. McMullen’s answer, shed a stark light on last week’s revelation of Kroger’s relationship to the Moreno operation almost 8 years later:

CIW: Good morning, my name is Julia de la Cruz.  I’m here today representing the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization of farmworkers internationally recognized for our work to end a long history of abuse in the fields.  Just this year, the White House awarded us with the Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts in Combating Modern Slavery.

It’s the sixth year that we’ve come here to this meeting to call on Kroger to join the Fair Food Program and uphold the highest ethical standards in your US tomato supply chain.  Thirteen corporations are participating, including the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, in what was called “the best workplace monitoring program… in the US” on the front page of the New York Times.

But Kroger’s commitment is necessary in order to ensure that workers at the base of your supply chain aren’t excluded from these protections.  Meanwhile, participating in the program will enable Kroger’s to mitigate risk and to give your consumers a product that you can stand behind.

Mr. McMullen, why refuse to give the opportunity to your shareholders to rest assured that Kroger is participating in this program, ensuring the elimination of farmworker abuses in Kroger’s supply chain?

CEO Rodney McMullen:  Thank you and obviously you understand that our relationships with our suppliers are very important, and every year we continue to invest money with our suppliers in terms of audits, and making those audits unannounced, as well as announced. And we expect all our suppliers, as I mentioned before, to follow our strict code of conduct.  And whenever we find a supplier that doesn’t follow those strict codes, we stop doing business with them. 

And we applaud the efforts of the folks — the suppliers in the Immokalee region — for the improvements they have made and we really do believe some of those improvements is [sic] due to your organization.  But we really do believe our responsibility is to our customers and shareholders to negotiate directly with suppliers rather than going through a third party.  So, appreciate the feedback and comments.

A follow-up question by Elena Stein of the Alliance for Fair Food is every bit as relevant today as it was then:

Alliance for Fair Food:  Good morning, my name is Elena Stein and I am here on behalf of the Alliance for Fair Food.Mr. McMullen, you just justified Kroger’s refusal to join the Fair Food Program by insisting that Kroger’s monitors its own supply chain with its own code of conduct and that it has — at some unidentified point in the past — audited in Florida’s fields.  When?  Where? How frequently?  With what standards, what auditors, and what consequences for non-compliance? 

If Kroger was capable of having the resources to audit one of its many supply chains on its own, surely it would have been aware that nine cases of federally prosecuted slavery, involving over a thousand people, occurred in Florida agriculture before the Fair Food Program went into place.  Surely it would have been aware of sexual violence in the fields, reported in one study as affecting as many as 80% of women in fields outside the Program’s protections.  And yet, in all those years, did Kroger ever shift their purchases away from those farms?  Or did you continue to purchase, turning a blind eye to this egregious abuse of the people who make possible the produce — referenced earlier as Kroger’s prized product — sold in your stores?

We aren’t asking you to design your own solution.  The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has already done it.  If Kroger were serious in any way whatsoever about eliminating abuses in its supply chain, it would take the simple step of joining the Fair Food Program, an established, proven solution to decades of abuses that are finally on their way to eradication from the fields.  It asks remarkably little of participating buyers; quite on the contrary, it helps corporations like Kroger mitigate potential risk by ensuring that competent auditors are doing the job that a corporation of Kroger’s size simply does not have the resources to do well.  Walmart joined voluntarily because they knew it was smart for business.

Mr. McMullen, it’s a simple choice: Do you want to continue to hold responsibility for the abuses that exist in your supply chain, growing the discontent from your consumers around the country as they call into question your corporation’s integrity — as with the protest outside today — or do you want to give your shareholders the assurance that you have joined an existing program designed to ensure the highest human rights standards?

Mr. McMullen’s response?  He repeated his earlier answer to Ms. Cruz, and added, weakly, “We audit our suppliers once a year.”   

The Moreno operation was uncovered after two farmworkers escaped from a labor camp in Pahokee, Florida, by hiding in the trunk of a car.  Once free from Moreno’s control, those workers called the CIW for help.  The CIW then collaborated with both the DOL and the US Department of Justice to finally bring an end to Moreno’s forced labor conspiracy, marking the 13th such successful collaboration since the 1990’s between the CIW and federal authorities ending in long prison sentences for abusive farm bosses and their acolytes. 

Farmworkers from Immokalee — who created the groundbreaking Fair Food Program through decades of hard work and struggle — and their consumer allies will gather outside that same labor camp in the small farm town of Pahokee next month to launch the 5-day Build a New World March.  And it is in that spirit of fighting for farmworker freedom, for workers who remain vulnerable to modern-day slavery schemes like Moreno’s when massive retail food chains refuse to support the proven protections of the Fair Food Program, that the marchers will demand Kroger, Wendy’s, and Publix finally join the Fair Food Program and do their part to help eradicate the scourge of modern-day slavery once and for all.




SAVE THE DATE: Farmworkers and Allies to Launch 5-day March to Palm Beach, FL, for Farmworker Freedom!

January 23, 2023

MARCH 14-18: Get ready Fair Food Nation! Farmworkers are organizing a 5-day march from Pahokee, FL, home of Florida’s most recent federal forced labor case, to the billionaire enclave of Palm Beach, where the power to end farmworker exploitation resides, to demand that three key remaining Fair Food holdouts – Wendy’s, Publix, and Kroger – join the award-winning Fair Food Program! Ready to join us for the 2-mile grand finale in Palm Beach on March 18? Click here to register for the 2023 Build A New World March! On March 14 of this year, farmworkers, their families, and their consumer allies from […]

Lessons learned from Immokalee’s fight against COVID-19: New study on community health highlights importance of building trust

January 17, 2023

‘Trust has been undervalued in health systems, but the Immokalee experience shows that it may increase participation in community health efforts through operationalizing the factors listed in the trust determination theory.” “The Immokalee coalition upheld the notion that while technical expertise is critical for building public health infrastructure, community knowledge is equally important for adapting interventions to local needs.” A new study published in a leading medical journal highlights the importance of strong community ties and trust to ensuring a more resilient and safe community – one that can respond effectively to disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic.  Co-written by the […]

Produce Industry Journal “The Packer” seeks CIW opinion on latest Florida-based forced labor operation…

January 12, 2023

“This is not the first federal prosecution for forced labor that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has uncovered and helped investigate, but the thirteenth,” CIW co-founder Lucas Benitez told The Packer. “The truth is, modern-day slavery remains a systemic problem in agriculture, and that problem is only going to continue to grow with the expansion of the H-2A program. But the good news is, it is not a problem without a solution.” As previously reported on this site, nearly six years ago, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers uncovered yet another sprawling forced labor ring, this time based out of Florida […]

Report from the Frontlines of FFP Expansion: A ‘Fair Fish Program’ for Migrant Fishermen in the UK?

January 6, 2023

“The level of agreement on fundamental issues that we encountered across the course of our stay was nothing short of remarkable. While there may be some disagreement on how widespread labor abuse is in the industry, no one dismisses its existence altogether, and everyone agrees that something – and, importantly, something new – must be done…” “We were immensely impressed with the open minds and vision of the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association and the POs that we met. Rather than close ranks and turn a blind eye to concerns raised by those outside the industry, they have fully engaged […]

From CIW to our generous supporters: thank you for supporting our work!

December 31, 2022

Charles Dickens, on the holiday season: “It is a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they were really fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” There is no easy way to say this. This past year has been filled with great darkness here at home and around the world: with the COVID pandemic still stealing so many of our loved ones from us before their time; with the brave people of […]

BREAKING: Forced Labor Ringleader Sentenced to Nearly 10 Years in Federal Prison

December 30, 2022

United States District Court in Tampa sentences Bladimir Moreno — ringleader of Florida-based forced labor operation and last of four defendants to be sentenced — to nearly 10 years in prison. “These defendants exploited their victims’ vulnerabilities and immigration status, promising them access to the American dream but then turning around and confiscating their passports and threatening arrest and deportation if they did not endlessly toil away for their profit,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in a press release earlier this year announcing the sentencing of Moreno’s partners in modern-day slavery operation.  “Using […]

A donation today helps workers build the future. Here’s how…

December 28, 2022

As the clock winds down on a tumultuous 2022, we here at the CIW are nearing the end of our year-end campaign to raise $100,000 dollars to support our crucial work in the pivotal year ahead.  And to give you a clear idea of where your gift will go and whom it will help, we want to take a moment today to highlight the work of several allied organizations that have adopted the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model in their own industries, a model born in the fields of Immokalee over a decade ago with the launch of the CIW’s […]

A generation with a fighting spirit is ready to build the future

December 23, 2022

Once again, I have come today to tell you about the impact the Fair Food Program, and the whole movement that created it, is having in the world – but today, I come to you as a mother. Many of our children have had to grow up watching their parents suffer the challenges of work in the fields, and endure together the economic battles of poverty.  But many of our young people have gotten involved in the fight for Fair Food since they were small. They have marched and they have handed flyers to consumers to explain their cause.  They […]

At nine crops and counting, the Fair Food Program is a lot more than “just tomatoes”! Help us cover more!

December 21, 2022

Across the United States (and beyond!), new farms are lining up to join the Fair Food Program. What began as a vision to protect farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, has expanded not only to cover the vast majority of tomato harvesters in the CIW’s home state, but also workers on farms from New Jersey to California. As new growers join the Fair Food Program, they often bring a new crop into the Program with them, signaling to farmworkers across the world that the FFP’s enhanced security, pay, and power are always expanding and within their reach, too. Today we wanted to […]

FFSC Director Judge Laura Safer Espinoza: “We have taken the first steps on the road to international expansion”

December 19, 2022

As part of our “Build The Future” fundraising drive to raise $100,000, we are sharing stories from the broader Fair Food Nation.  Today, Fair Food Standards Council Executive Director Judge Laura Safer Espinoza speaks about the next stage of the Fair Food Program. The FFP is going international, starting with farmworkers in Chile. Judge Espinoza shares exciting details of the joint FFSC/CIW delegation to Chile, where they met with everyone from government representatives, to worker and indigenous groups, food industry leaders and gender equity organizations: In October of 2022, a joint team of CIW and FFSC staff traveled to the […]