An estimated 560,000 women work on U.S. farms. Although the exact scope of sexual violence and harassment against agricultural workers is impossible to pinpoint, a recent (2013) investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting at UC Berkeley, aired on PBS Frontline, confirmed pervasive and persistent abuse of women working in the fields. Human Rights Watch reports cite a 2010 survey of farmworker women in California's Central Valley which found that 80 percent had experienced sexual harassment.1 Similar results were found in studies by the Southern Poverty Law Center.2
As an EEOC regional attorney told investigators, "Sexual violence doesn't happen unless there's an imbalance of power. And in the agricultural industry, the imbalance of power between perpetrator, company and the worker is probably at its greatest."
Investigators for the Frontline program, entitled "Rape in the Fields," interviewed very brave women who came forward across the country to tell their stories. At the end of their trip, however, they encountered a very different set of circumstances. They had arrived in Immokalee, Florida, home of the Fair Food Program (FFP), where the headline was "No Victims in these Fields, and a New Day for Human Rights in Agriculture." In an interview on NPR, the producer stated that the FFP is unique in its "proactive policies, the participation of workers, and the economic incentives placed on anti- harassment policies."
How did this new day come about?
When the founders of the Fair Food Program - the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) - started organizing in the 1990's, conditions for agricultural workers had not changed significantly since the famous documentary Harvest of Shame was filmed there in the 1960's. Violence, including sexual assault, massive wage theft, stagnant wages, health and safety violations, sexual harassment and discrimination were all part of daily experience for farmworkers.
Beyond this, at the far end of a spectrum of degraded conditions, were cases of forced labor, often involving sexual harassment and violence. Coalition members pioneered a worker-centered approach to slavery investigations and prosecutions, helping to free over 1200 workers in multiple states. Their efforts, for which they were recently awarded a Presidential Medal, were key in kindling the anti-trafficking movement in the U.S.
CIW's goal was not to keep going to court, however, but rather to eliminate the conditions that allowed these abuses to flourish. Organizing through traditional methods of work stoppages and strikes brought very little success. The growers themselves were experiencing tremendous downward pressure on prices from large corporate buyers, and farmworkers were excluded from collective bargaining rights by national legislation. A new strategy was needed.
The Campaign for Fair Food was born when workers realized that they would have to go to the top of the supply chain for solutions. The Campaign, supported by consumers, harnesses the power of the market as a force for good and is based on very simple principles: Participating Buyers (retail food companies) are asked to pay a penny more a pound for their produce, and to buy their tomatoes only from growers who implement a human rights based Code of Conduct with zero tolerance provisions for forced labor, child labor, and violence, including sexual assault and display of weapons. To date 14 major buyers, ranging from McDonalds and Subway to Whole Foods and Walmart have signed FFP agreements. At the end of 2010, growers representing over 90 percent of the Florida tomato industry joined the program through agreements in which they commit to pass along the "penny per pound" to workers and to implement the program's Code of Conduct on their farms.
This market-driven model has - in four short years of implementation - brought an end to impunity for sexual harassment and sexual violence. There have been no cases of sexual violence or sexual harassment with physical contact reported at Fair Food Program farms over the last two years. Cases of discrimination, whether based on national origin, gender or sexual preference have also been dealt with promptly and effectively through the program's complaint mechanism, without retaliation against complainants.
How is this accomplished?
This structure has resulted in a win-win-win situation.
For growers, benefits include becoming an employer of choice, reducing turnover, preventing risks, improving management systems, and obtaining verification of ethical labor practices, thereby giving them a competitive edge with buyers.
For buyers, the benefits include transparency and elimination of supply chain risks at a time when consumers - with access to instant information - are increasingly demanding to know the conditions under which their products are produced.
For workers, the changes are comprehensive and dramatic. In just four years, forced labor, violence and sexual assault have been eliminated from FFP farms. A prompt and effective complaint mechanism that protects workers against retaliation has been implemented. $20 million in "penny per pound" premiums have been distributed to workers, and systemic changes have helped to eliminate wage theft. Improvements in health and safety including provision of shade in the fields and worker participation in Health and Safety Committees - where all issues, including discrimination and harassment, can be productively discussed with management - have been made.
The FFP has expanded to 6 new states and, as of this season, 2 new crops. Beyond this, workers in other sectors as diverse as dairy workers in Vermont, construction workers in Texas, and those seeking to implement the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accords are looking to the FFP as a model, and our staff is helping to train and advise them. Worker organizations and governments in several other countries have reached out for advice and training. At the very same time our hotline continues to receive calls from workers who are suffering the worst kinds of abuses outside the program. In many of those cases, as you may know, CIW continues to work with EEOC in pursuing justice for those workers, until it is possible to one day prevent such abuses altogether.
2 Irma Morales Waugh, "Examining the Sexual Harassment Experiences of Mexican Immigrant Farmworking Women,"Violence Against Women, January 2010; Southern Poverty Law Center, "Injustice On Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry," November 2010, http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/injustice-on-our-plates (accessed April 7, 2012).
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