Sarasota Herald Tribune: “Farmworkers’ coalition has transformed Florida fields…”


Florida release of Fair Food Program annual report highlights key mechanisms for enforcement, impact of FFP…

The Fair Food Program Annual Report — which has been making the rounds among worker organizations, academics, and the media ever since its official New York release back in February — was the centerpiece of a lively community and media event in Sarasota, Florida, late last week.  Why Sarasota?  The fine city by the sea on Florida’s gulf coast happens to be home to the Fair Food Program’s dedicated monitoring organization, the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC).  And amidst the hustle and bustle of the final farm audits and worker-to-worker education sessions in Florida before the award-winning social responsibility program heads north to monitor participating farms along the east coast this summer, FFSC and CIW staff members took the evening to offer the audience of supporters, local leaders, and journalists a deeper look inside the FFP.

First to speak was the CIW’s worker-to-worker Education Team.  Gerardo Reyes Chavez took the floor, describing the importance of the Program’s “Know Your Rights” education process:


This booklet that I’m holding, which workers receive when they start working, contains rights that have never before existed in agricultural fields.  It describes situations of sexual harassment, wage theft, and humiliation.

Today, we’re living in a different reality.  When workers receive these [booklets], they become deputized with a very important task:  Overseeing the implementation of their own rights.  They trust the system, because they know that those of us on the education team come also from their reality.  And of course, there is the Fair Food Standards Council, which is the enforcing arm of this incredible program. 

The Fair Food Standards Council’s Executive Director, Judge Laura Safer Espinoza, was next up, highlighting the critical work of the FFSC’s investigator monitors, who follow the education team into the fields of Participating Growers to conduct rigorous audits to ensure compliance:

Second only to workers and growers in the Program, few feel the difference between a traditional CSR program, which is designed to protect the public image of a particular corporation without making a profound difference in the workplace, and the worker-driven Fair Food Program, which is designed to protect workers’ rights, more than the people who work doing the monitoring and enforcement every day.  


The Fair Food Standards Council is unique in that it is embedded, it is indigenous to the Program, and the people who monitor and enforce these rights live and work here.  The other essential ingredient, of course, is the market consequences behind the program.  In the other words, it is real.  You can be assured that when abuses are found, they are sanctioned.  And we can’t do that without all the details and information.  A guess is not good enough, a hunch is not good enough.  The people out in the fields throughout the season, ensuring we get the information we need, are the FFSC monitors.

The impact of the Program was not lost on the local press.  The next morning, the Sarasota Herald Tribune published an article highlighting the accomplishments of the Florida-born program as well as its national and international influence.  Here is an excerpt from the Herald Tribune’s piece, titled “Farmworkers coalition has transformed Florida fields“:



… Described as recently as 2003 by a U.S. Justice Department official as “ground zero for modern slavery,” Florida’s tomato fields are becoming an unlikely civil-rights success story. And the unempowered laborers who in 1993 formed the CIW in response to decades of violence, sexual harassment, wage ripoffs and even involuntary servitude have started a conversation that may even spread to Central America, South America, Africa and Europe.

“What they’ve done is amazing,” said Fair Food Standards Council Executive Director Laura Safer Espinoza, a former New York Supreme Court Justice whose organization monitors the CIW’s carefully crafted Fair Food Program, which began in 2011. “Their model is being looked at not only nationally, but internationally.”

The Fair Food Program was the breakthrough that ended CIW’s 15-year impasse with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. The agreement, cobbled out among laborers, 30 farms, and 14 major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Subway, and McDonald’s, has been adopted by more than 90 percent of Florida growers. The deal attaches a penny-a-pound premium for tomatoes, which has resulted in nearly $20 million more in wages for tens of thousands of the mostly Hispanic poverty-line farmworkers.

Equally critical is the program’s code of conduct, which implemented a 24-hour hotline for reporting violations of working conditions. The key to making it work: the Fair Food Standards Council on Pineapple Avenue, which monitors compliance with a staff of 13 auditors who have logged more than 1,100 complaints in the past four years.

But “during the last two seasons,” states the council’s report, “the FFP received no valid complaints and no reports during audits pertaining to forced labor, child labor, sexual assault, or physical violence by supervisory employees against workers.” Furthermore, the council is charting top-down proactive trends among growers: “Representing the change in attitude brought about by implementation of program standards, in two cases participating growers took preventive measures to avoid any future risk of violence, as a result of worker complaints.”

The Fair Food Program, which bills its work as “Worker-Driven Social Responsibility,” has posted the full report online. The CIW is also producing point-of-purchase labeling informing shoppers of humane worker treatment. Selected tomato farms in Georgia, both Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey signed on last year, and two Florida bell pepper growers and one strawberry grower have also become partners.

The evening was a great success, but there was no time to bask in its glow.  The very next morning, FFSC auditors went back to work on the remaining Florida audits and began preparing for the summer season ahead — including monitoring trips to the tomato fields of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey — while the CIW members present headed off in the early morning hours to an education session (pictured below) in Balm, Florida, to inform workers there of their rights under the Fair Food Program.


The untiring work of these two essential teams — backed by real market consequences established in the CIW’s Fair Food agreements with 14 multi-billion dollar food retailers — is the very heart of the Fair Food Program, and last week, for one evening, they enjoyed a moment to reflect on their groundbreaking efforts with an appreciative crowd of their hometown supporters.