Part One: New Academic Article Highlights the Success of the WSR Model in Securing Dignity in the Fields

Business and Human Rights Journal: “…WSR programs are better at enforcement than corporate-established initiatives, resulting in real-life improvements for workers.”

“The Fair Food Program’s recent expansion to several new states and crops suggests that more companies are seeing its value.”

“…the short time frames for complaint resolution in the Fair Food Program (51 per cent of cases resolved within 13 days) and the Milk with Dignity Program (6 days median time to resolution in 2019, down to 2 days in 2020) are far superior to other available remedial systems – such as litigation or complaints to regulatory agencies.”

In a time when consumers are more concerned than ever about fairer wages and working conditions for those who pick their food, build their homes, deliver their packages, and make their coffee, support for real, verifiable human rights protections is growing at an unprecedented rate.  And academics, human rights experts and national food justice organizations are taking note!  

In the days ahead, we will be publishing a series of posts on recent academic studies and policy announcements that acknowledge the key differences between the Fair Food Program — including its unique mix of monitoring and enforcement tools and unparalleled track record of measurable success — and the many other food certification programs that offer standards like those of the FFP but no realistic means to enforce those standards.  Unlike those traditional Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs, Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) initiatives are built to deliver on their promises of humane labor standards, constructed of multiple, overlapping mechanisms designed to not just remedy human rights violations in corporate supply chains, but actually to prevent them.  

The emerging consensus among academics and human rights experts is clear: All certification programs are not created equal.  And from that consensus, the experts conclude, derives the urgent need to expand worker-driven initiatives to enforce real human rights standards in corporate supply chains.  

First up in our series, we take a look at a new academic study, published last month in the Business and Human Rights Journal, heralding the WSR model’s unique benefits compared to traditional, corporate-controlled social auditing or ‘worker-voice’ programs.  Entitled, “The Overlooked Advantages of the Independent Monitoring and Complaint Investigation System in the Worker-driven Social Responsibility Model in US Agriculture,” the short article highlights a key set of characteristics shared by WSR programs — including the Fair Food Program and Milk with Dignity — that set them apart from the widely discredited Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) paradigm as the new gold standard in fighting exploitation, wage theft, sexual harassment, and inadequate health and safety protections in fields and other work sites.

In the excerpt below, the article’s authors outline WSR’s unique third-party monitoring and investigative system:

“In standard monitoring processes, social auditing is a temporary commercial transaction, performed by an agency selected and paid for by the supplier. Auditing firms typically operate separately from any operational NJGM and are not answerable to workers. This arrangement leaves auditing firms free to pursue self-interest. Indeed, research has shown that they do so by promoting an agenda of incrementalist soft-law labour governance.”

“The WSR model, in contrast, provides a framework in which the originally conceived benefits of operational-level NJGMs find their best expression. In the WSR model, as implemented in Milk With Dignity and the Fair Food Program, the same independent, third-party monitor, created specifically for the WSR program, investigates complaints from farmworkers and conducts field audits on farms. This creates a virtuous constant feedback loop, in which complaint resolutions provide for ongoing monitoring and enforcement complemented by the broader investigations and more expansive changes enabled through audits and corrective action plans. As a result, WSR programs are better at enforcement than corporate-established initiatives, resulting in real-life improvements for workers.”

To further hammer home this point, the article shows how quickly issues within workplaces are resolved using the WSR model:

“Likewise, the short time frames for complaint resolution in the Fair Food Program (51 per cent of cases resolved within 13 days)14 and the Milk with Dignity Program (6 days median time to resolution in 2019, down to 2 days in 2020)15 are far superior to other available remedial systems – such as litigation or complaints to regulatory agencies. The efficiency and flexibility of complaint resolution demonstrates increasing cooperation by farm management, which improves employee relations.”

The article also highlights the groundbreaking achievements of Milk with Dignity and the Fair Food Program in building trust between their auditors and the workers under the programs’ protections:

“Communication is a key ingredient of effective due diligence, as it allows for early identification and correction of issues. In WSR, the independent monitor improves communication through effective and efficient resolution of workers’ complaints, free of retaliation, which in turn builds trust in the system and encourages workers to come forward. For example, in its first three years, the Milk With Dignity program covered approximately 260 workers per year, and complaint resolutions by its independent monitor more than doubled in that time. This is a significant achievement, particularly considering that dairy farm workers live on the farms where they work, and most workplaces have few employees, rendering it difficult to maintain complaint confidentiality. Similarly, over the 10-year history of the Fair Food Program, complaints by workers made to growers, who then report them to the Fair Food Program independent monitor, have increased. This suggests that at least part of the workforce now trust in the system enough to call their employer first, without fear of any retaliation.”

Finally, the authors argue, WSR is distinguished by its flexibility and worker-driven mechanisms.  By listening to, and following the lead of, workers, the programs are able to evolve and their codes of conduct can adapt to working conditions that change over time:

“In WSR, the ongoing relationship between the monitor, workers and suppliers also serves to identify and address issues that are not yet included in the code of conduct. In this way, the WSR independent monitor benefits from the program’s roots in the broader worker community, fostered by the worker-led organizations that created the WSR program. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, for example, is based in Immokalee, Florida, where it runs a radio station, operates a store with affordable groceries and other staples, and offers regular community events. Migrant Justice, based in Burlington, Vermont, has led several successful statewide legislative initiatives focused on immigrant rights and similarly anchors the dairy farm worker community through regional assemblies and social events.”

The abuse of farmworkers is tragically etched into two and a half centuries of US agricultural history. With now more than a decade of unprecedented success, the Fair Food Program and the wider WSR model provide workers with a new tool, one that is changing that history with proven results.  For corporations like Kroger’s, Wendy’s, and Publix that remain stubbornly attached to the discredited CSR approach, the growing academic consensus in support of real, worker-driven human rights protections leaves them increasingly isolated.  With each passing year, their position grows only more indefensible. 

Stay tuned for more analysis in the days to come from scholars and leading human rights organizations on the need for verifiable human rights in global corporate supply chains!