Remarks: Greg Asbed, United Nations Business and Human Rights Annual Forum, 2015

Thank you, Phil, and thank you, Dante, for putting together this great panel and for the opportunity to discuss the Fair Food Program — and the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model of which it is a leading example – here at the Annual Forum.

I know we have very strict time limits, so I will cut to the chase. In the US real estate market, there is a saying that the value of any property is determined by 3 simple things: Location, location, and location.

I would propose a similar rule for the field of social responsibility, except when it comes to protecting human rights in corporate supply chains, the only 3 things that matter are:

  1. Enforcement,
  2. Enforcement, and
  3. Enforcement.

That is to say, the United Nations Human Rights Council got it right when it established “Remedy” – access by victims to effective remedy, both judicial and, especially, non-judicial — as the third pillar of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. While the first two pillars are important in assigning responsibility for protecting and respecting human rights in corporate supply chains, the third, remedy, puts the focus squarely on the indispensable action of making universal human rights real.

The Fair Food Program, established now in over 90% of Florida’s tomato industry, and in the process of expanding to farms in seven states and two new crops this fall, provides effective remedy for farmworkers through a unique combination of mechanisms, including:

  1. A worker-drafted code of conduct, including prohibition of the particular abusive practices that workers experience in their workplace that are not covered by existing law and not known by anyone outside the industry;
  2. Worker-to-worker education on the rights under the code, so that workers can be the informed, frontline monitors of their own rights;
  3. A 24-hr complaint line for the investigation and resolution of complaints, so that the abuses that workers identify can be quickly and effectively solved;
  4. In-depth audits on participating farms, to complement the education and complaint process and uncover abuses workers may not be able to see;
  5. Market consequences for human rights violations established in binding legal agreements between the CIW and the brands, whereby companies like Cheryl’s agree to only purchase produce from growers who are in good standing with the Fair Food Program, as determined by the Fair Food Program.

In concert, these mechanisms make enforcement possible in the Fair Food Program, enforcement that is 1) driven by the workers themselves — the very humans whose human rights are in question, and so the stakeholders with the most compelling and abiding interest in seeing those rights protected – and 2) backed by market-based consequences, so that employers know that the failure to comply will result in the swift and certain loss of sales, as is the case with other standards that the market truly cares about, such as food safety standards.

The Fair Food Program also integrates the other pillars of the Guiding Principles. First, though the legally binding agreements with brands, the Program engages corporate buyers in respecting human rights in their supply chains in a concrete and effective way. Those agreements – requiring the brands to purchase only from suppliers in good standing with the Program — provide a meaningful economic incentive to suppliers to value the human rights of their workforce, because their interest in maintaining access to the market of retailers committed to the Fair Food Principles is greater than any incentive for, or even indifference to, the continued exploitation of workers.

And second, the Fair Food Program, though its focus on worker education and participation, has created an army of worker-monitors tens of thousands strong, many of whom have moved on to work in other sectors over the past several years. Those mobile workers represent an invaluable resource for the monitoring of human rights beyond the four walls of the Program, as they continue to refer complaints from their new places of employment. Because we do not have the same mechanisms for enforcement in those cases, we often share those complaints with the Department of Labor, providing the government with countless new eyes and ears on the ground for the protection of human rights in the broader agricultural industry and allowing our public/private partnership to flourish. By the same token, the success of the FFP on farms where it is in effect serves to free up scarce public resources for enforcement and allows those resources to be directed at sectors where abuses remain common.

I want to stress that none of this is theoretical. We have the proof, out of the very same laboratory dubbed “ground zero for modern-day slavery” in the United States by federal prosecutors just a few short years ago. Since 2011, the Fair Food Program has eliminated, not just addressed, forced labor, sexual assault, and violence against workers in Florida’s tomato industry, eliminating many of the worst actors from the industry in the process. And when lesser but still vexing violations like wage theft or health and safety problems occur, there is a complaint system in place to address them quickly and effectively that has resolved nearly 1,200 complaints in just four seasons. What’s more, nearly $20 million dollars have been added to farm payrolls in that same period through the Program’s Fair Food Premium, paid by purchasers and passed on to workers by their employers in their weekly paychecks; time clocks and shade are now required in the fields; and worker health and safety committees give workers a much needed voice on the job for communicating and addressing their safety concerns.

The Program has been an unmatched success, making the limits on its expansion, which are due primarily to a lack of resources, the most important ongoing challenge we face today. Many of the brands already partnering with the Program are eager to see it expand to cover more of their supply chains, including Cheryl’s company, Compass Group, which voluntarily committed earlier this year to support that expansion. But there is a fundamental tension between expansion and the integrity of the Fair Food Program, a tension caused by the Program’s resource-intensive focus on enforcement. In short, real human rights protections can be achieved efficiently, but they cannot be achieved on the cheap. We are working diligently today on developing alternative sources of revenue that will allow the Program to grow and expand its protections to, potentially, millions of workers in new crops, new states and even new countries.

Finally, tensions between the CIW and the corporate purchasers, on the other hand, are an issue only for those buyers who remain outside the program, and that tension is also being increasingly relieved as the Program continues to operate and prove its effectiveness. Many of the companies that have come on board since the Program was implemented in 2011 have done so voluntarily, including Walmart, drawn by the proven ability of the Program to actually eliminate human rights abuses, not just provide a public relations fig leaf when unaddressed abuses inevitably come to light.

So, to wrap up, the Fair Food Program, and the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (or WSR) model of which it is a proven example, are distinguished by their laser focus on enforcement, an approach we affectionately call “enforcement obsessed” inside the Program. That enforcement is driven by the informed participation of workers themselves, whose role as frontline defenders of their own rights ensures wall-to-wall monitoring of the Program’s human rights based code of conduct, and is reinforced by the market power of the participating buyers, whose commitment to only purchase from growers in good standing with the program gives the model its teeth.

In short, the Fair Food Program works in American agriculture and it can work in many of the low-wage industries where now only the workers know the true extent of the human rights abuses they suffer every day. The goal, which is eminently achievable, for us, and the world, is to channel the necessary resources to expand the WSR model without diluting its unique effectiveness.