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Spotlight on Coalition of Immokalee Workers

April 6, 2023
American Bar Association

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, inresponse 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.

For more information, visit https://ciw-online.org/

Published in the ABA Labor and Employment Law Newsletter - Winter 2023, Volume 50 Issue 4.

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