CIW receives Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts in Combatting Modern-Day Slavery at White House Forum!

Sec. Kerry: “This is an extraordinary accomplishment, and reminds all of us not just of the work that we have to do, but that dedicated individuals, like those here with us today from the Coalition, can strike out against injustice, break down barriers, and make a world of difference.”

Yesterday was a landmark day in the history of CIW’s fight for farm labor justice.

Twenty years ago, workers rose up in the fields and in the dusty streets of a dirt-poor town by the strange name of Immokalee to demand an end to the systematic violation of their fundamental human rights.  The CIW was born in those streets, and today, twenty years later, through the unrelenting struggle and sacrifice of tens of thousands of workers and consumers, the CIW’s successful efforts have remade an industry, and the model of worker-driven social responsibility forged in that battle stands as a beacon of hope for many, many more workers trapped in poverty and exploitation at the bottom of vast corporate supply chains around the world.

And so yesterday, the CIW’s efforts, born in a forgotten community’s desperate struggle for survival, were celebrated in the halls of power of the highest office of the land.


Secretary of State John Kerry’s words in presenting the medal were eloquent, and so we have included here an extended excerpt from his remarks:

“… So if you dig deeper, you begin to see that modern slavery does not exist in a vacuum. It’s connected to many of our other foreign policy concerns, from environmental sustainability, to advancing the lives of women and girls, to combatting transnational organized crime. Wherever we find poverty and lack of opportunity, wherever rule of law is weak, wherever corruption is most ingrained, and where minorities are abused, where populations cannot count on the protections of government or rule of law, we find not just vulnerability to trafficking but zones of impunity where traffickers can prey on their victims.

One of the greatest zones of impunity is in the supply chains. The sources of the problem include individuals desperate for work; unscrupulous labor brokers who lie to recruit those workers; companies greedy for profits, who turn a blind eye to abuses; and customers looking to just save that extra dollar or two without regard to what the implications of those savings may be. If governments want responsible businesses to compete on a level playing field, then we need to address this problem head on…

And when we purchase produce at a grocery store, you rarely think about the farmworkers right here in the United States, who in some cases are paid substandard wages and live in horrific conditions, with physical and verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and discrimination. The magnitude and the enormity of this challenge cannot be overstated. But so are the opportunities for change. So are the opportunities for us to be able to have an impact, and that’s what makes this forum today so important…

Wilberforce [William Wilberforce, a leader of the British abolitionist movement] knew that it means something to be on a moral mission, and his words ought to continue to inspire us today. He said, having heard of all of this, much of what I’ve just said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did not know.” Human trafficking often happens in places which we rarely think to look in. But today we’re just not looking the other way. We all know about the ravages of modern slavery and we’re determined to live up to our responsibilities to say no more, never again, and to realize the vision of a world that is more caring, more accountable, and more just – a world, ultimately, that will be free from this kind of slavery.

So for these reasons and many more, I am especially pleased to present this year’s Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. And I would ask if they would come up here, and we’ll read the citation and present them with the award. 

Those of you know Florida’s tomato sector already know about the risks of forced labor, and some farm workers in Florida are in the fields for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. They live in deplorable conditions. They suffer beatings and sexual harassment, and many are paid hardly anything for the tomatoes that they pick.

But thanks to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers Fair Food Program, the tomato workers in the fields do not have to face these abuses. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers have organized communities, stood by tomato workers for more than 20 years, and changed the face of this industry. They’ve pioneered a zero tolerance policy that puts workers and social responsibility at the absolute center. Their program ensures a price premium which buyers agree to pay directly to the farm worker, and the coalition provides worker-to-worker training sessions on site around the clock. They make certain that there are health and safety committees for – on every farm. And they’ve already enlisted the major support of buyers from McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Compass Group, and Fresh Market.

The CIW delegation was joined at the White House forum by several of its partners in the Fair Food Program. Picture from left to right: Jon Esformes (Operating Partner, Pacific Tomato Growers), Catalina Ramirez (CIW), Lucas Benitez (CIW), Cheryl Queen (VP, Communications, Compass Group), Laura Germino (CIW), Judge Laura Safer Espinoza (Fair Food Standards Council), and Greg Asbed (CIW).

And we also recognize the Coalition for partnering with law enforcement to combat human trafficking. They’ve helped uncover and investigate several farm slavery operations across the southeastern United States. I hope everybody hears that: farm slavery operations across the southeastern United States. Over the past 15 years, 9 major investigations and federal prosecutions have freed more than 1,200 Florida farmworkers from captivity and forced labor, with the coalition playing a key part in the 7 of those operations. And the Coalition has effectively eradicated human trafficking in the farms that participate in their Fair Food Program.

That is an extraordinary accomplishment, and reminds all of us not just of the work that we have to do, but that dedicated individuals, like those here with us today from the Coalition, can strike out against injustice, break down barriers, and make the world of difference.

So it’s my honor to present the Coalition of Immokalee Workers with this award which reads: “For its extraordinary efforts to combat human trafficking by pioneering the Fair Food Program, empowering agricultural workers, and leveraging market forces and consumer awareness to promote supply chain transparency and eradicate modern slavery on participating farms, we award this Presidential Award.” read more

It was a humbling moment, and the medal represents a solemn responsibility to continue this fight so that the full potential of the worker-driven social responsibility model may be reached in low-wage worker communities throughout the agricultural industry and around the world.  

Following the presentation of the medal, the CIW and its partners in the Fair Food Program participated in the White House Forum on Combatting Human Trafficking in Supply Chains, presenting the Fair Food Program as a case study of the successful eradication of forced labor.  Here below is an excerpt from Greg Asbed’s remarks, speaking on behalf of the CIW: 


I wanted to close with a brief thought experiment, to look at the question before us today in a slightly different light. So, imagine for a moment that we had come together not for the White House Forum on Human Trafficking but for the White House Forum on the Fight against Cancer.

We all know someone with cancer. It is a fight that touches all of us, our mothers and fathers, our sons and daughters, our friends and colleagues. Because the stakes are so high, and because the pain is all around us, failure in the fight against cancer is not an option.  And because we cannot afford to fail, we do what we do when we take a fight seriously – we invest significant resources in it, we establish strict protocols and standards of evaluation to distinguish effective treatments from those that don’t work, and we implement those cures that do work as widely and with as much discipline as possible.  Charlatans exist in the fight against cancer, but only where cures have not yet been found.  Where an effective approach has been proven through the scientific method to work better than snake oil, the effective approach is accepted and applied by all reasonable people. 

Let’s return now to the fight against forced labor and for fundamental human rights in corporate supply chains.  Sadly, failure in this field has not just been an option, but rather, if we are to be honest with ourselves, it has been the norm, and success an all too rare exception.  We failed for years to fight modern-day slavery in Florida’s fields, we failed horribly to fight factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh, and we continue to fail to fight child labor, debt bondage and violence against workers in Mexico’s produce fields, just to name a few glaring examples.

But, as you have just heard, we do, finally, have a proven success story not just to celebrate, but to replicate, and it was designed by workers themselves, the very workers whose wages were stolen for generations, whose bodies were violated by their bosses, who were forced, by violence or the threat of violence, to work against their will.  For the workers in Immokalee whose struggle gave birth to the Fair Food Program, the pain – like that of the fight against cancer – was all around them, and failure was never an option, so they constructed a system of education, monitoring, and enforcement so airtight that it was virtually guaranteed to succeed.

And that is perhaps the fundamental lesson that we should all take away from the success of the Fair Food Program: If we are to end modern-day slavery, factory fires, and rape in the fields, then we must start treating the fight for fundamental human rights like we do the fight against cancer — stop accepting failure and start applying real rigor to our social responsibility efforts.  That means establishing strict standards of evaluation to distinguish effective practices from those that don’t work, investing in the success of those that do, and implementing those proven approaches as widely and with as much discipline as possible.  And to do all that effectively, we must acknowledge that workers themselves have to play a leading role in the protection of their own rights, not as a matter of philosophy, but as a functional necessity.

If we do this, then we will not just fight forced labor, we will eliminate it.  We have the proof, and out of the very same laboratory dubbed “ground zero for modern-day slavery” by federal prosecutors just a few years ago. With the Fair Food Program, and in partnership with growers like Jon and corporate leaders like Cheryl, we have eliminated, not just addressed, forced labor, sexual assault, and violence against workers in Florida’s tomato industry. And when lesser but still vexing violations like wage theft or health and safety problems occur, there is a system in place to address them quickly and effectively before they become more serious. We conceived a theory of change, we tested that theory against experiment, and the results are not just encouraging, but frankly astounding.  After four years, it is even safe to say that we have a cure to the age-old epidemic of farm labor exploitation.

We have traveled the road from prosecution to prevention, and we can tell you that prevention – a world without victims – is infinitely preferable, for all of us, workers, growers, and buyers alike.

But we should not fool ourselves.  If we do this, if we undertake to implement worker-driven social responsibility widely and effectively, it will not be fast, and it will not be free.  It will take time and resources. But we have failed, collectively failed, to combat modern-day slavery and other gross human rights violations for generations already, all the while throwing away money in salaries and consulting fees fighting the public relations crises caused by the unrelenting human rights violations.  The failure of the traditional CSR approach has many, many externalities, the value of which, when accounted for accurately, would easily fund the implementation of the WSR approach.

So we have time, and we have money, to lead this fight, and if we direct those precious resources toward their place of highest return – toward support of the proven WSR model and the verifiable protection of human rights and not the support of the failed CSR model and the management of public relations crises – then we can, together, wipe the cancer of forced labor from the face of the earth in our lifetimes.

We will have more from yesterday’s events as materials come online from the White House.  It was an exciting, inspiring day, one that will not be forgotten among countless memories from this remarkable movement for Fair Food, a movement that, after twenty years, is just getting started.