US Department of Labor lifts up Fair Food Program as national model for eradicating forced labor!

CIW’s unparalleled experience in combatting — and, most importantly, preventing — modern-day slavery in agriculture offers lessons for growers, buyers, and human rights activists alike in USDOL’s widely-watched virtual panel;

Miguel Rios, Regional Agricultural Enforcement Coordinator with the USDOL: The Fair Food Program “is something every grower and food retailer should be a part of.  The program’s success is absolutely undeniable.”

Decades of CIW history have proven that modern-day slavery in agriculture isn’t actually anything new.  But the recent wave of forced labor prosecutions in the sector has revealed a disturbing trend: the H2-A program, the federal visa program that ties farmworkers’ legal status to their employment and so offers unscrupulous growers and crewleaders ample power and opportunity to exploit their workers, has thrown fuel on this long-simmering fire.

The problem has become so alarming that the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division made it the sole focus of a January 31st roundtable on human trafficking, attracting more than 500 attendees who gathered to learn about the growing concern and what is being done to address it.  With opening remarks from the EEOC and the DOL’s International Labor Affairs Bureau (ILAB), the panel featured several key leaders in the fight against human trafficking across the southeastern states, including the Fair Food Program’s own Judge Laura Safer Espinoza, Executive Director of the Fair Food Standards Council, who was invited to share lessons from the program’s unique, worker-driven, market-based approach to ending forced labor.

The six-minute video at the top of the post is a compilation of many of the key excerpts and lessons of the day.  You can also watch the discussion in its entirety here.   

For a sense of what you will see in the short video above, here below are just a few of the highlights.

Rachel Raba, Senior Policy Coordinator with ILAB, on the causes of forced labor in agriculture:  

Adults and children are forced to work in virtually every agricultural sector across the globe.  Not only is agriculture considered by the International Labor Organization to be one of the most hazardous labor sectors, but many agricultural workers are vulnerable to human trafficking due to their exclusion from coverage by local labor laws, pressure on growers to reduce costs, insufficient monitoring and auditing of labor policies, and lack of government oversight.

Mike Rios, Regional Agricultural Enforcement Coordinator with USDOL, on the difficulties of encouraging trafficking victims to speak with investigators:

I think Judge Safer Espinoza hit the nail on the head, which has to do with retaliation.  That’s one of the biggest obstacles…  It is unfortunate, I wish there were much better mechanisms and methods by which we could — it’s a strong word, but — guarantee to a worker that there will be no retaliation.  That really is very difficult to do, at least outside of something like the Fair Food Program, of course… outside the Fair Food Program we certainly have our issues in trying to prevent retaliation against these workers.

Judge Laura Safer Espinoza, Executive Director with the Fair Food Standards Council, on how to make human trafficking no longer profitable for those who would exploit farmworkers:

In terms of what we can do to collaborate, it’s really important for the entire supply chain to light up when a trafficking case is discovered, because that information recruits and empowers organizations like ours who do consumer education and mobilization to harness the highest levels of the market to make it less likely to occur in that channel again… It has been our experience that the only way to ultimately get ahead of trafficking is by making it no longer profitable by ensuring that there are market consequences by the next rung up in the supply chain when we find it, so that when the actors responsible for trafficking are contemplating their next move, their next crime, they are considering that they will lose their livelihood if they are caught, and more.

Last month’s panel was a remarkably smart, and frank, discussion of the challenges facing law enforcement in eradicating the growing problem of forced labor in the nation’s food industry, and a full-throated endorsement of the Fair Food Program as one of the most effective partners for state and federal law enforcement today — not to mention growers and retail food brands — in the fight to end modern-day slavery.  

Be sure to check out the short video at the top of today’s post and, if you have the time, check out the panel in its entirety here