Coalition of Immokalee Workers awarded the prestigious Frances Perkins Public Service Award from the American Bar Association

The CIW Education Team leads a worker-to-worker education session, an integral part of the Fair Food Program, on a participating farm in Florida earlier this year.

“The American Bar Association Section of Labor and Employment Law has awarded the 2022 Frances Perkins Public Service Award to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) for its vital decades-long fight for the dignities of agricultural workers and its impact on harnessing legal and market forces to bring about change.”

ALSO… From the Oak Foundation: “The Fair Food Programme (FFP) has succeeded in implementing reforms in Florida and nine additional states, that have eradicated the most severe forms of exploitation in agriculture, and created a dignified working environment for workers. Today, farmworkers receive protection against forced labour, sexual abuse and harassment, violence, wage theft, and dangerous conditions. They are also given access to breaks, shade, and clean drinking water.”

As the international expansion of the Presidential-medal winning Fair Food Program continues to gather steam, we are pleased to share some more good news on the growing recognition of the FFP’s unique success: the American Bar Association (ABA) announced that it has selected the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to receive its 2022 Frances Perkins Public Service Award!  This exciting comes right on the heels of the announcement that the CIW’s own co-founder Lucas Benitez is set to be awarded the prestigious Wallenberg Medal.

We are including the full write-up of the ABA’s announcement below, but first we want to describe why this award is particularly important. As the nation’s foremost professional association for the legal field, the ABA’s Public Service Award is an acknowledgement that the Fair Food Program is a novel leap forward in guaranteeing the human rights of some of the countries most vulnerable and marginalized workers. And as the write-up outlines, the FFP not only transformed the tomato fields of Florida, but is aiding in the development of many other worker-driven social responsibility programs across the globe, from garment workers in South Asia to fishers in the United Kingdom. The ABA joins the United Nations, the White House, and the MacArthur Foundation, among many other human rights experts and legal observers, in recognizing the CIW as a proven leader in human rights enforcement within global supply chains. 

Here is the full write-up from the ABA announcing our receipt of the Frances Perkins Award. You can also read it on their website here.


Spotlight on Coalition of Immokalee Workers

The American Bar Association Section of Labor and Employment Law has awarded the 2022 Frances Perkins Public Service Award to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) for its vital decades-long fight for the dignities of agricultural workers and its impact on harnessing legal and market forces to bring about change.

The CIW is a groundbreaking worker-based human rights organization internationally recognized for its achievements in fighting forced labor, subpoverty wages, widespread sexual harassment, and abusive work conditions. The CIW pioneered the design and development of the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) paradigm, an approach to protecting human rights that is worker-driven, enforcement-focused, and based on legally binding commitments that assign responsibility for improving working conditions to the global corporations at the top of those supply chains. The WSR model has become the “gold standard” of social responsibility programs, according to a decade-long study by the Institute for Multi-Stakeholder Initiative Integrity. The model has been successfully adopted to improve workers’ rights in multiple industries and on three continents, including fishers in the United Kingdom and garment workers in Pakistan.

Reflecting on CIW’s success, farmworker leader and organizer Gerardo Reyes stressed the importance of harnessing market forces to empower workers and create a dignified workplace. Reyes also highlighted the importance of legal counsel willing to partner with organizers as equals and be creative when applying the law to effect change. He noted the pivotal role of former CIW General Counsel Steve Hitov, a key architect of CIW’s WSR model, who “never lost sight of the human side of the equation” and challenged old notions of labor law. Mr. Hitov, who passed away in 2020 after a long and courageous battle with cancer, helped set the course for a 21st-century human rights revolution on farms throughout the South, and gave rise to a blueprint for the protection of workers’ rights, the WSR model, that the MacArthur Foundation called “a visionary strategy . . . with the potential to transform workplace environments across the global supply chain.” In accepting the 2022 Frances Perkins Award on behalf of CIW, Mr. Reyes called for others from the legal profession to follow in Mr. Hitov’s footsteps and join the urgently important work of building and supporting WSR programs to protect human rights.

The CIW formed in 1993 when a group of farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida (America’s fresh tomato growing capital) began holding weekly meetings at a local church to discuss key community issues—oppressive working conditions, a two-decade decline in wages, price gouging by the local markets, and a lack of formal outlets to address these concerns. The coalition ignited a multi-layered grassroots campaign to bring attention to their dire living and working conditions and to fight for basic dignities as workers. The CIW organized community-wide work stoppages, including a month-long hunger strike and 234-mile march from Fort Myers to Orlando. By 2000, CIW had achieved some progress, including industry-wide wage increases; however, most workers remained below the federal poverty line and southern Florida was still a hotbed for modern-day slavery and other labor abuses.

In 2001, the CIW examined key agricultural markets and began to develop a novel model of labor and human rights enforcement. CIW leaders recognized that current labor and human rights laws lacked necessary resources and methods for enforcement, including but not limited to workers’ ability to report legal transgressions without immediately suffering retaliation. Further, agricultural employers primarily based their decision to increase employee wages and benefits on their bottom-line profit; and their top line was determined by contracts with key food industry buyers—national grocers and food-service providers. These buyers in turn answered to the conscious consumer-at-large, who can be influenced by educational and public interest campaigns to purchase solely from businesses engaged in ethical practices.

Thus, by educating consumers and influencing their purchasing behavior, advocates incentivize food industry buyers to contract with farms maintaining fair working standards.

That same year, the CIW organized a national boycott of Taco Bell, calling on the company to take responsibility for human-rights violations occurring in the farms supplying its produce. By 2005, in response to tremendous public pressure, Taco Bell and parent Yum Brands signed a groundbreaking agreement with the CIW that included a “passthrough” payment (i.e. direct payment) to agricultural workers and an enforceable code of conduct for suppliers to continue business with Yum Brands. By 2014, the CIW reached agreements with several other key players: McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, Subway, Bon Appetit Management Co., Compass Group, Aramark, Sodexo, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle and Walmart.

CIW launched the Fair Food Program (FFP) in 2011, a comprehensive WSR program where farmworkers, agricultural suppliers, and food industry buyers partner to ensure the maintenance of safe working conditions. Building on CIW’s prior agreements with food industry buyers (e.g., passthrough payments and a supplier code of conduct), the FFP setup the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC), a third-party monitor to audit suppliers, investigate worker complaints, and provide educational programs for workers. In 2015, the FFP expanded beyond Florida tomato growers to growers in Georgia, South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey. Since the FFP’s inception, participant buyers have paid nearly $40 million in pass through premiums to farm workers and the FFSChas resolved thousands of issues raised by worker complaints and its own audits.

In addition to protecting agricultural workers covered by the FFP, the CIW has been instrumental in prosecuting modern- day slavery operations. According to the FFP’s 2021 State of the Program Report, the CIW has freed over 1,500 workers from slavery operations and helped prosecute over a dozen forced-labor bosses. Most recently, the CIW assisted in the successful prosecution of Bladimir Moreno and his co-conspirators, who coerced seasonal Mexican workers into forced labor in Florida on non-FFP farms (the CIW’s 13th such successful collaboration with federal prosecutors to date). The CIW was alerted to Moreno’s crimes when two enslaved workers escaped in the trunk of a vehicle and called the CIW for help. CIW then referred the case to the Department of Justice and assisted with the investigation throughout the prosecution.

While you’re here, we also wanted to share a write-up from the Oak Foundation on the extraordinary track record of human rights progress under the Fair Food Program. The Oak Foundation is an international foundation dedicated to supporting a variety of causes aiming to make society more equal and the planet more sustainable. They have been a generous supporter of our work for years, and we are excited to offer this brief report on the impact of our work:


From tomatoes to Hollywood: Improving workers’ rights in the fields and beyond 

Add a Florida-grown tomato to your salad, and the chances are it’s been picked by a worker with some of the highest human rights protections in US agriculture. This is because at least 90 per cent of tomato production in Florida, the US, is now part of the Fair Food Programme. That one tomato tells an incredible story of a worker-driven rights movement that started in the US, and is now expanding around the world.

The Fair Food Programme (FFP) has succeeded in implementing reforms in Florida and nine additional states, that have eradicated the most severe forms of exploitation in agriculture, and created a dignified working environment for workers. Today, farmworkers receive protection against forced labour, sexual abuse and harassment, violence, wage theft, and dangerous conditions. They are also given access to breaks, shade, and clean drinking water. Thanks to a new ‘bucket-filling standard’, workers are no longer pressured to overfill harvesting buckets, but instead receive fair pay for the amount picked, earning around 10 per cent more as a result [1].

But this wasn’t always the case, as one worker on an FFP farm explains: “I have been in the fields all my life… I have seen a great deal. And now I also see that things are better, now we are not treated like dogs – I am grateful.” And the fields once known to federal prosecutors as “ground zero for modern-day slavery” are now seen as the best workplace environment in US agriculture.

An approach to end ‘generations of suffering’
US legislation that guarantees basic labour protections dates back to the 1930s. However, farm and domestic workers were excluded from the protections of the National Labour Relations Act, leaving workers in these sectors highly vulnerable to exploitation. This includes human trafficking, which farm workers, especially women, are particularly vulnerable to.

Nowhere was this vulnerability more evident than Florida’s tomato sector. In the early 1990s, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a worker-based human rights organisation, uncovered multiple instances of forced labour and human trafficking, helping free more than 1,500 workers. But the conditions that permitted these abuses remained.

CIW realised that it needed to counteract the vast power imbalance between farmworkers and their employers. So it went to the top of the supply chain, with the goal of marshalling the purchasing power of retail food giants that buy millions of pounds of produce for stores and restaurants every year.

These efforts grew into the Campaign for Fair Food, launched in 2001. It mobilised a national network of consumers that asked companies to use their market power as a force for good by:

  • paying a premium – a penny more a pound – for their produce, which would be passed on to workers as a bonus; and
  • agreeing to purchase only from growers who implemented a human rights-based code of conduct on their farms.

Ten years later, with major retailers and restaurant chains onboard, these efforts led to the foundation of the FFP, an organisation with a simple but compelling proposition for buyers in its strapline: Consumer Powered – Worker Certified. Under this umbrella, the CIW created a Code of Conduct based on workers’ experiences and priorities and carries out worker to worker education on the rights provided by the Code, on all participating farms. As a result, with the help of the FFP as the official monitoring organisation, tens of thousands of workers have become frontline monitors of their own rights, in interactions with their supervisors and co-workers. The Fair Foods Standards Council, a separate not-for-profit organisation, was set up to conduct audits on all participating farms and to respond to a 24-hour worker hotline to help address systemic issues and resolve workers’ complaints.

Overall, the FFP has been instrumental in improving farms’ treatment of their workforce. “It’s a unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that ensures humane working conditions and increased compensation for the people who feed our families,” says Judge Laura Safer Espinoza who leads the Fair Food Standards Council. “What’s remarkable is that this unprecedented, sector-wide transformation grew from one group of workers who wanted to end generations of suffering.”

In 2014, the huge achievements of the CIW were recognised with the 2014 Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking in Persons. Presenting the medal, the then US Secretary of State John Kerry commended the “extraordinary accomplishment” which demonstrated “that dedicated individuals… can strike out against injustice, break down barriers, and make a world of difference”.

A new take on corporate social responsibility
Robust and respectful reporting systems mean that FFP’s standards are upheld by third-party auditing and feedback systems, so that workers can report problems without fear of retaliation. Incidences of abuse, including sexual violence and harassment, have been dramatically reduced as a result. Women agriculture workers feel safer in the workplace.

Therefore, a sector previously synonymous with modern-day slavery has become one of the best working environments in US agriculture. The Harvard Business Review has described FFP as “one of the most important social-impact success stories of the past century”.

Now, the reach of the FFP’s efforts has expanded beyond Florida, to other states and new crops. As a result, thousands of workers, especially women, who were previously invisible in the agriculture sector, enjoy its human rights protections. Over USD 42 million of direct premium payments from corporate buyers have been distributed to farmworkers as a bonus in their regular pay cheques.

And today, perhaps the most powerful export of the FFP is not just its produce, but its model of Worker-Driven Social Responsibility (WSR). “This approach flipped the script on traditional corporate social responsibility programmes, because it puts power directly into the hands of workers,” explains Judge Laura Safer Espinoza. “There are real market consequences for farms who don’t comply with agreed standards.”

In 2015, the WSR Network launched to share these principles with other industries where workers are vulnerable to exploitation. As a result, WSR has been adopted in US sectors as varied as dairy, construction, and modelling (where young women are especially vulnerable). And in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it collaborated with the Hollywood Commission to develop the blueprint for a programme tackling sexual harassment in the film industry.

Another network member is the Milk With Dignity programme, which brings together farmworkers, farmers, buyers and consumers to secure dignified working conditions in dairy supply chains on US farms. One worker outlined some of the benefits, saying, “I feel more protected because I know more now… about the rights that I have as a worker and the right to be respected by my boss.”

Outside of the US, WSR principles are being used to remedy dangerous conditions for the significant numbers of women working in the Bangladeshi and Pakistani garment sectors and eliminate gender-based violence in garment factories in Lesotho.

The future of the Fair Food Programme
Back in the tomato fields of Immokalee, the FFP continues to ensure improved working conditions on certified farms, and the arrival of new challenges is met with positive action. When the coronavirus pandemic threatened to harm farmworkers’ health and potentially decimate jobs in the industry, the FFP introduced and enforced new prevention and illness response standards to ensure that workers would be protected during the crisis.

“They put a lot of protections in place… I wasn’t too afraid of the pandemic because of the precautions that the company was taking,” Immokalee farmworker Antonia Rios Hernandez told the New York Times in January 2021.

The latest improvement in standards and enforcement is the FFP’s new heat stress prevention protocols, requiring mandatory rest breaks, and many other prevention and response mechanisms, as climate change continues to impact outdoor work environments.

Oak has supported the Fair Food Programme and the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network since 2016 through the Worker Justice and Dignity Fund, hosted by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Oak was the first philanthropic foundation to recognise the significance of worker-driven social responsibility as an effective strategy to prevent and end extreme forms of exploitation and abuse that many women experience in the most marginalised work environments. This grant falls under our Issues Affecting Women Programme, which seeks to strengthen women’s organisations and movements, enabling them to learn from each other and work together to develop knowledge and skills, and to plan, organise and mobilise. You can find more about the IAWP programme by clicking here. You can also find out more about the Fair Food Programme here.