Growing wave of brutal modern-day slavery operations in agriculture prompts renewed calls for expansion of Fair Food Program

Officials from the U.S. Justice Department, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. State Department, U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and state and local law enforcement officers speak at a news conference in Waycross, Georgia on Monday, November 22, to announce indictments in the case of U.S. v. Patricio et al.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Under the threat of gun violence, some were allegedly forced to dig for onions with their bare hands… At least two people died on the job. Another was allegedly repeatedly raped.”…

FAQ on U.S. Customs and Border Protection website: “There is ample evidence-based research that demonstrates social audits, as they are currently administered, are ineffective in identifying and reducing forced labor. Instead, more investment should be made in worker-driven solutions. Examples of how this can be achieved are the Fair Food Program and Bangladesh Accord.”

The drumbeat of headlines has been intense, even by agricultural industry standards.

The conditions faced by workers held against their will in the forced labor schemes were horrific.  From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

A years-long human trafficking operation trapped migrant workers in “modern-day slavery” on South Georgia farms, according to a federal indictment unsealed last week.

Victims include over one hundred laborers smuggled from Mexico and Central America into “brutal” and “inhumane” working conditions. Under the threat of gun violence, some were allegedly forced to dig for onions with their bare hands, earning only 20 cents for each bucket harvested. At least two people died on the job. Another was allegedly repeatedly raped.

When not out in the fields, workers were detained in work camps surrounded by electric fencing, or held in cramped living quarters, including dirty trailers with raw sewage leaks. There was little to no access to food or safe drinking water.

Twenty-four accused members and associates of the criminal enterprise that perpetuated the exploitation now face a slew of felony charges, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia. The multi-agency cooperation that yielded the indictment – dubbed “Operation Blooming Onion” – may be one of the largest-ever human trafficking and visa fraud investigations in the country.

One farmworker advocate in Georgia, Solimar Mercado-Spencer, an attorney with the Farmworker Rights Division of the Georgia Legal Services Program, expressed the concerns of all who work combating longstanding, widespread farm labor exploitation in the US agricultural industry:

“This has been happening for a long time in Georgia … And these people that were arrested are not the only ones doing these things,” she said. “I hope [law enforcement] keeps busting these operations because that’s not the only one going on in Georgia.”

Because it’s happening in rural areas, nobody sees the victims, Mercado-Spencer said.

“All you see is, you know, your onions at Kroger. You can go buy them. You don’t know where they came from. But this is happening and nobody notices it. And these are essential workers that have been keeping us fed through the pandemic.”


Meanwhile, audits prove ineffective in the face of ongoing slavery cases…

The recent wave of modern-day slavery prosecutions — a wave that, despite its magnitude, undoubtedly represents only the tip of a much larger iceberg — is reminiscent of a similar pattern of abuse exposed in Florida in the years before the Fair Food Program was implemented in 2011.  Starting in the 1990s, the CIW uncovered and investigated nearly a dozen cases of forced labor in southern agriculture, working with federal prosecutors who dubbed the area of southwest Florida where Immokalee is located “ground zero for modern-day slavery.”  The scale of the CIW’s anti-slavery efforts resulted in the awarding of a Presidential Medal for work that freed over a thousand workers from forced labor and put more than a dozen farm bosses behind bars.  But despite those many successful prosecutions, success in eliminating forced labor remained elusive.

Members of the CIW’s Worker-to-Worker Education team speak to workers about their rights under the Fair Food Program last year on a participating farm in Tennessee.

Until 2011.  In creating and implementing the Fair Food Program eleven years ago, the CIW ensured that these abuses were eliminated at their root on FFP farms. But outside the Program there can be no doubt that farm labor exploitation is still big business, and if anything, getting bigger with the explosion of the H-2A program over the past several years.  

And as the operations uncovered last year made painfully clear, the traditional audit-based approach of Corporate Social Responsibility — an approach practiced by such well-known certification programs as Fair Trade USA, Rainforest Alliance, and the Equitable Food Initiative — has failed miserably at its stated purpose: to end human rights abuses in corporate supply chains.  

From the Los Angeles Times article on the recent Customs and Border Protection action holding Mexican tomatoes at the border:

… Supply chains from Mexican farms to American dinner tables, often consisting of opaque networks of constantly shifting players, are difficult to unravel. Tomatoes plucked off vines by laborers at Mexican farms may change hands five or six times as they are trucked to U.S. distributors and passed on to restaurants, food service companies and retailers.

Most retailers and distributors say their supplier farms are free of forced labor, but enforcement of basic standards, through on-site visits and audits, varies, and critics question some companies’ commitment to social responsibility…

… Del Campo Supreme, an Arizona distributor whose motto is “People First,” received the vast majority of the produce, according to import data obtained by The Times. The other customer, the data showed, was Mastronardi Produce, North America’s largest distributor of greenhouse tomatoes, which sells tomatoes under its Sunset label…

… “We take this matter extremely seriously… [Del Campo Supreme’s general manager, Diego Ley, said].  Going forward, if Del Campo uses any third-party suppliers, we will require independent monitoring and auditing.”

… Mastronardi supplies most major U.S. retailers — including Walmart; Target; Kroger, which includes Ralphs Grocery and Food 4 Less; and Albertsons, the parent company of Safeway and Vons.

The company declined to address questions about its supply chain, and it remains unclear whether the retailers received any of the tomatoes from the Mexican farms. In a statement, the company said it holds its suppliers to a code of conduct. “We are steadfast in our commitment to ensuring that workers are treated with respect and dignity and that working conditions across our supply chain are safe,” said the statement from the Ontario, Canada, company.

As Michael Schadler of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange told the Times:

“It’s unacceptable that occurrences like this are still happening in a country that supplies the U.S. with a significant portion of the fruits and vegetables that Americans consume,” said Michael Schadler, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, an association of Florida farmers. “While some reforms have taken place in Mexico, this latest incident makes it clear that more action is needed.”


Customs and Border Protection FAQ: “More investment should be made in worker-driven solutions”

The abject failure of traditional codes of conduct and auditing schemes behind the explosion of forced labor and other extreme forms of farm labor abuse is not lost on government officials and farmworker advocates.  A post on the Customs and Border Protection website, titled “Virtual Trade Week: Forced Labor Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs),” left little doubt about the inadequacy of the audit-based approach to corporate social responsibility:

There is ample evidence-based research that demonstrates social audits, as they are currently administered, are ineffective in identifying and reducing forced labor. Instead, more investment should be made in worker-driven solutions. Examples of how this can be achieved are the Fair Food Program and Bangladesh Accord.

That same CBP FAQ went on to add:

Professor Genevieve LeBaron with the University of Sheffield, U.K. has written extensively on the drawbacks of the audit industrial complex. Some relevant examples of Prof. LeBaron’s work that discuss the flaws of audits include Governing Global Supply Chain Sustainability through the Ethical Audit Regime and Combatting Modern Slavery: Why Labour Governance is Failing and What We Can Do About It. Resources on this subject can also be found on the Re:Structure Lab website.

In an April 2021 report, the Re:Structure Lab called for corporations seeking to end human rights violations in their suppliers’ operations to

  • “End prevailing social auditing ‘rubber stamping’ practices which lead to dangerous and exploitative worksites being certified…”
  • “Explore possibilities for binding worker-driven social responsibility agreements and meaningful worker empowerment…”

In short, the recent wave of forced labor operations uncovered in the U.S. and Mexican agricultural industries has left no room for doubt that it is, finally, time for a change in the way corporations address human rights violations in their suppliers’ operations.  Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, as it has been practiced for nearly three decades has failed.  Its codes of conduct — fine-sounding standards with no real means for enforcement — have proven to be nothing but empty promises, both to the workers whose rights they, in theory, aim to protect, and to the consumers whose concerns they, in fact, were designed to calm. Meanwhile, extreme labor exploitation, from systematic wage theft and sexual assault to forced labor, has continued to grow into bigger and bigger business, with the illegal profits derived from the operation uncovered recently in Georgia topping $200 million, according to government investigators.  

It is time for a new way forward, for a worker-driven, market-enforced approach to human rights.  Worker-driven Social Responsibility, or WSR, was born in 2011 with the advent of the Fair Food Program.  It has achieved proof of concept through not only ten years of unprecedented results in Florida’s fields, but through the FFP’s expansion into multiple states and multiple crops, and through the model’s replication in multiple industries on multiple continents.  And in every place it has been implemented, the worker-driven approach has brought long-overdue change where before corporate codes of conduct and empty auditing schemes left only a trail of misery and exploitation.  It is time, finally, for WSR.