Powerful new report out of Harvard Law School hails Fair Food Program as model for human rights in the 21st century

The CIW’s Nely Rodriguez (right) leads a conversation on protection against retaliation under the Fair Food Program during a recent Worker-to-Worker Education session on a Fair Food Program Participating Farm, as two volunteers display an FFP drawing depicting a supervisor scolding a worker for speaking up on the job.

New report from Harvard Law School Center for Labor and a Just Economy: “With WSR, workers define and claim their human rights to fair pay, freedom from abuse, safe working conditions, and dignity due to all who work hard. Workers drive and inform the design of WSR programs, and the market ensures the enforcement of the standards and requirements. WSR has proven its effectiveness within the United States and internationally.”

“There’s been a transformation in its tomato fields and in the tomato farms up the eastern seaboard. Thanks to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and its Fair Food Program, the abuse that has been a constant for more than 300 years of U.S. agricultural history has been eliminated.”

Thirty years ago, farmwork in Immokalee was laden with abuse at virtually every turn.  Violent farm bosses, sexual harassment and assault at the hands of crew leaders and co-workers alike, long hours of back-breaking labor in oppressive heat, stolen wages, and generations of toiling in the fields for poverty wages at long-stagnant piece rates.  At its worst, the exploitation and abuse tipped over into modern-day slavery, men and women forced to work against their will under the threat — and, all too often, the use — of violence. 

Back then, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was a loose collective of farmworkers gathering weekly in a local church to discuss the hardships they faced, seeking to understand the roots of their troubles and envisioning a more modern, more humane agricultural industry, one where their voices as workers were heard and their dignity and human rights respected in the fields.  Now, thirty years on, the CIW is a trusted, proven leader in the global human rights movement, its members the authors — through years of hard-fought struggle — of a powerful new model for empowering low-wage workers to safeguard their own rights at work, not just in the tomato fields of Immokalee where the model was born, but across the country and around the world.  The Fair Food Program, the human rights program pioneered by the CIW, and the model it gave rise to, the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model, are lauded today as the new paradigm for protecting workers’ rights in corporate supply chains in the 21st century, and worker-led groups are busy adapting it to secure their own basic human rights in low-wage industries running the gamut from textiles to fishing, from construction to cut flowers. 

A new report released last week by the Clean Slate for Worker Power Project, an initiative of Harvard Law School’s Center for Labor and a Just Economy (CLJE), tells the story of how Immokalee’s fields were transformed from “ground zero for modern-day slavery” to the “best workplace environment in U.S. agriculture,” and how, in turn, the broader WSR model grew into a driving force for human rights in an increasingly globalized economy. 

The author of the report, Susan Marquis, is also the author of I Am Not a Tractor!: How Florida Farmworkers Took On the Fast Food Giants and Won, the definitive history of the CIW which tells the story of the Immokalee workers’ early organizing efforts and the birth of the Presidential-medal winning Fair Food Program.  

Summarizing the report, Yoorie Chang, the Project Manager for the Clean Slate for Worker Power Project at Harvard Law School’s Center for Labor and a Just Economy, writes

“In response to the increased attention around human rights abuses facing low-wage workers around the globe, we have seen the emergence of myriad solutions within the social responsibility sector, including corporate social responsibility campaigns, multi-stakeholder initiatives, and transparency legislation. But among many such approaches to addressing workers’ rights violations, one program has stood out. The worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) approach, first championed by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in the tomato fields of Florida, has garnered acclaim for its successes in mitigating abuses within the agricultural and other low-wage production sectors. In the latest report from the Clean Slate for Worker Power project, Susan L. Marquis highlights the origins of WSR, how it’s been effective, and the promising implications of its application in sectors and industries beyond agriculture.”

The CLJE report, which you can find here, is well worth taking the time to read in-full.  We have excerpted a few passages below to give you a sense of the Dr. Marquis’s analysis and the report’s central thesis.  Enjoy! 

Worker-Driven Social Responsibility: A New, Proven Model for Defining, Claiming, and Protecting Workers’ Human Rights

By Susan L. Marquis, published on 06/19/2023

“Building fires and factory collapses in Bangladesh. Modern-day slavery in U.S. agriculture. Sexual harassment and assault in the movie industry. Firings and violence against workers in retaliation for reporting abuses or trying to organize. Over the past two decades—often in response to the uncovering of another scandal of inhuman working conditions, rampant wage theft, or forced labor—there’s been increased attention to the need to enforce the human rights of workers to safe working conditions and fair pay. The increased attention is new, but the problem of abuse and exploitation of low-wage workers is not. Within agriculture, physical abuse and wage theft go back to the tragic history of enslaved workers, continue through our nation’s Jim Crow era, and, as will be demonstrated below, are with us today. Industrialization brought new avenues to not only exploit factory workers but to also place them in significant physical danger. And globalization has meant that the multinational corporation behind your favorite brand of jeans is likely to have an international supply chain riddled with unsafe working conditions, below-poverty wages, rampant wage theft, and even cases of forced labor or modern-day slavery. Increased attention to who was making your iPhone, “fast- fashion,” or chocolate gave rise to a raft of highly touted “solutions” and a new social responsibility industry. Recent research and evaluations demonstrate that these solutions of corporate social responsibility (CSR), multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs), and “transparency legislation” have been ineffective at best and exacerbating at worst….”

From here, the report highlights the accomplishments of the CIW and the promise WSR brings to human rights for the future of low-wage workers across the globe:

“…There has been a bright light of not only hope but real and positive change in the darkness of continuing violence and human rights violations. Amidst the failure of one “groundbreaking” program after another, there has been one approach that has demonstrated the ability to effectively eliminate this abuse. Worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) is a new” model for defining, claiming, and protecting workers’ human rights, establishing its roots in Floridas farm fields before CSR or MSIs were confidently declared the answer for ending abuse in corporate supply chains. The seeds of WSR germinated in Florida’s sandy soil in the 1990s, coming to maturity in the second decade of the 2000s, when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) designed, fought for, and established the Fair Food Program. In Fair Food Program fields, abuse long endemic to our nation’s large-scale agricultural operations is now effectively eliminated. This worker-driven social responsibility model has now extended to new areas of agriculture, particularly dairy, and other low-wage production including the global garment industry, as well as emerging expansions in U.S. construction and the U.K. fishing industries.”

“But Florida has a more positive claim to fame. There’s been a transformation in its tomato fields and in the tomato farms up the eastern seaboard. Thanks to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and its Fair Food Program, the abuse that has been a constant for more than 300 years of U.S. agricultural history has been eliminated. Modern-day slavery and forced labor are effectively nonexistent in these Fair Food fields, as are physical and gun violence, and sexual assault. Wage theft and verbal abuse are rarities and, when found, are quickly investigated and resolved. Worker pay has increased by 60 to 100 percent. Producers have also benefited from a more stable workforce and improvements in safety and productivity. More importantly, the Fair Food Program has transformed the tomato industry’s reputation from “ground zero” to “best workplace environment in U.S. agriculture.” The benefits of the Fair Food Program extend beyond those provided to the workers. Individual growers and producers no longer have to wrestle with class action lawsuits, slavery and forced labor prosecutions, and Department of Labor (DOL) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) cases that characterized the industry for years. Buyers of Fair Food Program tomatoes (and peppers, potatoes, cucumbers, peaches, and flowers) protect the integrity of their brand with a supply chain guaranteed to be clean and fair.”

Workers at Bloomia receive on-the-clock education on their rights and responsibilities as workers, thanks to the Fair Food Program

“Implementation Matters: Building the Fair Food Program and Extending Worker-Driven Social Responsibility

There are four primary actors within the Fair Food Program and in most other WSR programs: the CIW and farmworkers; the growers; the corporate buyers; and the Fair Food Standards Council, established by the CIW. The program itself has five major elements. The combination and comprehensiveness of these elements have been essential to the program’s success.  The first of these, and the foundation of the program, is a set of standards called the Code of Conduct and its supporting Guidance Manual. The next element is a comprehensive monitoring and reporting system of the growers’ compliance with the code. The monitoring program is significantly strengthened by the third element of the program, a worker education program that ensures workers know their rights and responsibilities and equips workers to act as frontline monitors, 24/7. Fourth, when workers or auditors report potential violations of the code to the program’s complaint mechanism, the third-party Fair Food Standards Council investigates and, in the case of confirmed violations, develops corrective action plans that the growers must execute to return to compliance. If any grower does not take the required actions and fix the problem, the Fair Food Standards Council invokes market sanctions, the fifth element and the unique power behind the entire program, suspending the grower from the Fair Food Program and blocking access to partner buyers (e.g., Taco Bell, Burger King, McDonald’s, Whole Foods, Compass, or Walmart).

Exploring the true meaning of ‘worker-driven’ in ‘worker-driven social responsibility, the report illuminates how initiatives like the FFP stem from the workers themselves, who don’t have the luxury to walk away from problems in the workplace: 

“It’s here that the difference between a worker-driven strategy and externally driven strategies is perhaps the most stark. With WSR, beginning with the farmworkers of the CIW, the need to develop and pursue an effective strategy to define, claim, and protect their human rights is existential, affecting their very lives. If the original strategy couldn’t achieve the wholesale change required for farmworkers to be safe in the fields and earn a living from their labor, then it had to change. Feel-good marches with allies and a higher public profile wasn’t enough. The motivation behind a worker-driven social responsibility strategy is of a different depth and quality than from an NGO entering the workers’ rights arena with a five-year plan. No matter how well intentioned, success or failure for the nonprofit or NGO is about the success of the program or initiative, not the existence and lives of their community. Not only is their understanding of the problem qualitatively weaker, but the stakes are also lower for an externally driven organization than for the workers who are subject to beatings, rape, and wage theft. Reasonably, the motivation for a company in a corporate social responsibility program is even further removed from the existential motivation of the workers. Corporations address problems in their supply chains because their public relations and brand are taking a beating. They want to protect their brand, not their lives.”


“The benefits of worker-driven social responsibility programs to every link in food and other corporate supply chains have become evident to all who study, evaluate, and compare social responsibility programs. For those who participate in WSR programs, buyers safeguard their brand with an effective certification of a protected supply chain, with enforcement of legal standards and those of the program’s Code of Conduct at covered producers. Producers ensure the safety of their workers, improve their production processes, have greater workforce stability, and gain preferential and protected access to a significant part of the market. And the workers? With WSR, workers define and claim their human rights to fair pay, freedom from abuse, safe working conditions, and dignity due to all who work hard. Workers drive and inform the design of WSR programs, and the market ensures the enforcement of the standards and requirements. WSR has proven its effectiveness within the United States and internationally.”

The report concludes by calling on the Federal Government to explore and commit to progressive new procurement standards, conditioning the federal government’s purchases of produce and other goods on suppliers’ compliance with workers’ fundamental human rights through participation in a WSR program:

“Federal, state, or local governments requiring their suppliers to certify valued and protected workers in their production enables government agencies to not just declare but also achieve their policy objective when this certification comes from programs demonstrated to be effective in preventing worker abuse, wage theft, and forced labor, whether that’s through the Fair Food Program or other WSR programs. In addition to meeting agency goals, the protection of workers’ human rights at the scale of government procurement would transform agriculture and other labor-intensive supply chains. As the integration of the U.S. military in 1948 reflected a country ready for change, active support of worker-driven social responsibility by the actions of the federal government in its own procurement will reflect a country ready to recognize the human rights of every worker.”

Be sure to read the CLJE report in full here!