Fair Food Standards Council unearths forced labor case on Fair Food Program farm…

An FFSC auditor speaks with a worker at an FFP farm last season.

Two farm bosses indicted on charges of “conspiracy to provide and obtain forced labor” on Homestead area farm after FFSC takes findings to federal investigators.

It is, we will acknowledge, unusual to discuss the Fair Food Standards Council’s findings on an individual farm on this website.  But then again, it is every bit as unusual for those findings to include zero tolerance violations.  In fact, this is the first case of a zero tolerance violation in the five-year history of the Fair Food Program, and as such it merits discussion, to the extent we can do so given the ongoing criminal process.  

So, let’s start with the facts, from the US Department of Justice press release:

Agustin Mendez-Vazquez, 43, and his son, Ever Mendez-Perez, 23, both originally of Mexico, were charged by indictment with one count of conspiracy to provide and obtain forced labor, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1594(b). Agustin Mendez-Vazquez was also charged with one count of providing and obtaining forced labor, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1589(a).  If convicted, Agustin Mendez-Vazquez faces a statutory maximum term of imprisonment of 40 years.  Ever Mendez-Perez faces a statutory maximum term of imprisonment of 20 years.

According to court records, Agustin Mendez-Vazquez and Ever Mendez-Perez, who work as unlicensed labor subcontractors on tomato farms in the Homestead area, utilized physical force, threats of physical force, threats of deportation, and debt bondage to maintain control over other migrant workers.  Workers under the defendants’ control were beaten if they did not work every day; were subjected to harassment and abuse; and were required to relinquish large portions of their paychecks – sometimes their entire paychecks – to the Mendezes. The defendants are currently being held without bond pending trial.

The case was broken by the Fair Food Standards Council.  After receiving complaints on its 24-hour hotline from both a witness to, and a victim of, the forced labor operation, the FFSC conducted its own investigation and referred the allegations to law enforcement.  The result of the referral to law enforcement was the indictment quoted above (see the Department of Justice press release in full here).

The result of the FFSC’s own investigation was the decision to suspend the relevant Participating Grower from the Fair Food Program.  Under the Fair Food Code of Conduct,  suspension results when the FFSC’s investigation finds that forced labor has taken place in association with a Participating Grower’s operations.  This is true whether or not the the grower could otherwise be found legally liable.  

And that is what zero tolerance looks like in practice.

Fair Food Program proves its mettle once again…

As longtime readers of this site know, the CIW has been a leader in the modern-day movement to end forced labor since the movement’s inception over two decades ago.  From our Anti-Slavery Campaign page:


The CIW’s Anti-Slavery Campaign has uncovered, investigated, and assisted in the prosecution of numerous multi-state, multi-worker farm slavery operations across the Southeastern U.S., helping liberate over 1,200 workers held against their will. The U.S. Department of State called the CIW a “pioneer” in the worker-centered and multi-sectoral approach to slavery prosecution, and hailed the CIW’s work on some of the earliest cases of slavery as the “spark” that ignited today’s national anti-slavery movement. Since those early cases, the CIW has continued to shape the national movement against slavery, between playing a key role the passage of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, being appointed by the Florida legislature to the Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force, and co-founding the national Freedom Network USA and the Freedom Network Training Institute (FNTI). Through the FNTI, the CIW trains state and federal law enforcement and non-governmental organizations throughout the U.S. on how to identify and assist people held against their will in slavery operations.

But the implementation of the Fair Food Program in 2011 marked the beginning of a new chapter in our work to end forced labor in agriculture: Prevention.  Also from the same page (emphasis in bold added):

Today, the implementation of the Fair Food Program has ushered in the newest phase of the CIW’s anti-slavery efforts, that of prevention, whereby the market consequences built into the FFP, including zero tolerance for forced labor, encourage participating growers to actively police their own operations, and the worker-to-worker education program at the heart of the FFP informs and empowers tens of thousands of workers to serve as monitors to identify and expose slavery operations wherever they might be present.

And while the FFP’s market-based economic incentives have indeed helped transform the Florida tomato industry into what one public policy expert called “the best working environment in American agriculture,” no one ever believed that the economic incentives would be sufficient, in and of themselves, to eliminate forced labor entirely from an industry called “ground zero for modern day slavery” by federal prosecutors just a few short years ago.  

That is why the Fair Food Program includes multiple, redundant mechanisms — from worker-to-worker education on rights under the Program, to the 24-hour complaint line, to the Program’s uniquely penetrating field and farm office audits — in its design to ensure that when violations do arise they are identified and remedied as effectively, and efficiently, as possible.  

The CIW education team meets with workers at an Immokalee area farm.

And in this latest case, all three of those mechanisms came into play and functioned just as designed, resulting in the elimination of what appears to have been a particularly harsh situation.  While we had all hoped that forced labor would be a thing of the past due to the market consequences to growers if associated with such conduct, at the same time we knew that there would be an ongoing need for the FFP’s stringent and thorough enforcement mechanisms.  

In short, while the market consequences built into the program will indeed prevent the vast majority of human rights violations on participating farms, the enforcement mechanisms will catch the rest.  Inexorably, those systems, together, are ridding Florida agriculture of its worst actors and its worst abuses.