CIW speaks at OSCE conference in Moscow on stopping human trafficking…

Greg Asbed of the CIW (second from left) participated on the first day of the OSCE conference as part of a panel titled “Private Sector Initiatives and Practices Addressing Human Trafficking”. He described the Fair Food Program and its well-documented success in fighting forced labor, and challenged the assembled corporations, government representatives and NGOs to aim higher than the traditional corporate social responsibility approach of codes of conduct without enforcement or worker participation.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) holds first-ever international conference on public private partnerships fighting human trafficking in collaboration with Russian Federation, identifies Worker-driven Social Responsibility as promising new prevention method in fight against human trafficking…

Last September, CIW representatives were asked to speak on the Fair Food Program and the CIW’s anti-slavery efforts at the OSCE’s Conference on Prevention of Trafficking in Human Beings for Labour Exploitation in Supply Chains in Berlin.  The conference was described as a “high-level event… part of the OSCE’s ongoing effort to raise awareness about the problem of labour exploitation in supply chains and to advocate for increased actions at the government level across the OSCE region with the aim of adopting measures to prevent and combat this form of modern day slavery.”

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was formed in 1975 in Helsinki, Finland.  Since then, it has expanded to include 57 participating states — including the US — from Europe, Central Asia, and North America.  Today the OSCE has grown to become “the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization” with a mandate that includes “issues such as arms control and the promotion of human rights, freedom of the press and fair elections.”

Last week, the OSCE invited the CIW once again to discuss the Fair Food Program’s unique success in preventing forced labor, this time at a gathering of OSCE member states in Moscow.  Here’s a description of the forum, from an OSCE press release:

Moscow, 21 July 2017 – The Conference on “Public-Private Partnership in the Fight Against Human Trafficking” organized by the OSCE Office of the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, in co-operation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, concluded today at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

The two-day event gathered almost two hundred participants from 40 OSCE participating States and Partners for Co-operation, countries outside of the OSCE area as well as representatives of numerous international organizations, non-governmental entities, the private sector, trade unions, academia and the media.

The conference provided participants with a platform to discuss relevant international frameworks and instruments, the magnitude of trafficking for labour exploitation in the private economy, the roles of governments and the private sector, along with OSCE projects and activities to prevent human trafficking in the private sector. They also discussed how to build on existing experience and lessons learned in other countries around the world and identified promising prevention methods and measures to minimize the risk of human trafficking… (read more)

Greg Asbed, a CIW co-founder, and Laura Germino, Coordinator of the CIW’s Anti-Slavery Program, participated in the conference on behalf of the CIW.  Here below is an extended excerpt from Asbed’s remarks from the first day of the conference (you can find the full text of his remarks here):

… I’d like to begin by inviting you to join me in a thought experiment.  Imagine you are out for a drive on a lovely country road surrounded by farms on both sides.  You come upon two perfect little farm stands selling freshly picked fruits and vegetables to passersby.  Both have their prices on signs by the road, and while the prices are virtually identical, one seems to be consistently just a few pennies cheaper.

Naturally, you turn your car into the less expensive stand, choose a delicious looking selection of fruits, and approach the register.  Just then, a blood-curdling scream comes from the field over the cashier’s shoulder.  You see a worker, on his knees, being brutally beaten by his boss.  Startled, you look across the field and see another worker, a woman, being sexually assaulted by another farm boss.  The cashier smiles and says, “That will be $12.50…”

What would you do?  If you are like most people, you would refuse to purchase the fruit and demand an explanation.  When the cashier tells you “Oh, don’t worry, we have a program to monitor our fields.  We take a look around once a year, and so far, every time we visit, everything has been A-OK!”

Disgusted, you leave the fruit at the register, get into your car, and cross the street to the second stand.  There, before selecting your fruit, you look in the fields through an open door, where you see workers and supervisors talking in one corner, other workers picking, still others enjoying a cool drink of water under shade.  When you compliment the owner on the conditions you see, she says, “Thank you, we are very proud of our labor monitoring program, would you like to come back and talk with the crew to learn more?  They’re really the ones who built the program themselves.”

From which stand would you buy fruits and vegetables for your family?  The answer seems obvious, yet still, if we are being honest, in the vast majority of cases, the answer of large retail food corporations presented with the same scenario – competing producers, knowledge of vastly different labor conditions, and a de minimis price difference – is not the same as yours or mine.  

Somehow, when people come together form to corporations, their collective tolerance for abusive conditions increases exponentially, as does their willingness to turn a blind eye to reality and accept the fiction of the annual audit.  Price, not human rights protections, drives purchasing decisions far more often than we’d like to admit.  

I am a Co-Founder of the Fair Food Program, a unique partnership for the protection of farmworkers’ fundamental human rights.  Our program brings together 14 of the worlds’ largest retail food corporations, from McDonald’s to Walmart, dozens of major growers of fruits and vegetables in the eastern United States, and the organization for which I work, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (or CIW).  After nearly a decade of on-the-ground, day-to-day experience, we would submit for your consideration three truths of social responsibility — and therefore of the fight against human trafficking — that we hold to be self-evident:

  • that, when it comes to protecting workers’ fundamental human rights, not all social responsibility programs are created equal;
  • that those programs created — and driven — by workers themselves are more comprehensive and more effectively monitored;
  • and that, when combined with effective enforcement power, worker-driven social responsibility programs are not only preferable to any alternative, but, where the option exists, are the only ethical choice… 

During the question and answer period, Asbed suggested that the corporate social responsibility executives participating in the conference consider the food industry’s approach to the issue of food safety as a model for how to effectively address the problem of human trafficking, adding, “As long as corporations treat food safety as an existential threat and human trafficking as a public relations threat, human trafficking will continue unabated.  Standards without enforcement are nothing more than pretty words on paper.”

As was the case last year in Berlin, the FFP’s unique worker-driven social responsibility model provided a rare case study of successful trafficking prevention and human rights enforcement in an otherwise bleak landscape of problems without effective solutions.  In the conclusion to his remarksAsbed addressed the principal obstacle to the continued expansion of the FFP and the WSR model:

… It is one thing to throw your hands in the air when confronted with a seemingly insoluble problem like human trafficking in the absence of a solution.  It is something else altogether to turn your back on a proven solution and intentionally purchase from suppliers where the problem is known to thrive.  Until that philosophy changes among the majority of corporate purchasing managers around the globe, we who are dedicated to the fight for fundamental human rights can work miracles – solve the seemingly insoluble — and people will continue to suffer unnecessarily for nothing more than a few pennies per pound.

You can find the complete text of the CIW’s remarks here.

We thank Ambassador Madina Jarbussynova of Kazakhstan, the OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, for inviting the CIW to participate, and the OSCE team for their hard work and dedication to fighting the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable workers around the globe.  Their efforts will result in the development of a set of practical tools for participating states to apply to the fight, including model guidelines and resources which will highlight promising practices like the CIW’s Fair Food Program and the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model.