From a harvest of shame to grounds for hope, a group of farmworkers are changing the tomato growing industry and getting recognized for their effort. The Clinton Global Initiative this last week gave two of the co-founders of Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Greg Asbed and Lucas Benitez, their Clinton Global Citizen Award. Now, if you are like I was just several months ago, you may have just asked yourself who these people are, why you should care, and what kind of important work their organization is doing. Let me tell you.
The Tomato Fields of Florida, and the Genesis of CIW
In 1960 a man named Edward R. Murrow produced a documentary entitled Harvest of Shame, in which he exposed the plight of migrant farm workers in Florida (watch it here). Within the first minute-and-a-half, the viewer hears this poignant line:“We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.” Thirty-three years later, in 1993, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was founded in Immokalee, Florida. The organization began as a truly grassroots organization. Meeting in a church, they discussed community organizing and the working conditions that people experienced in the tomato fields. Wages had been going down for fifteen or so years, and there was no sign it would get better. Consumers want cheap tomatoes, and labor was easy to get.
Throughout the 1990s, the CIW advocated on behalf of these workers. Using methods from hunger strikes to work stoppages they applied pressure on the growers, and in 1998 they succeeded in reversing the low-wage trend. As they began to head towards the millennium, they started to expand their focus.
Modern-day Slavery in the Tomato Fields
Through their work with the low-income migrant farm communities in Florida they had uncovered something horrifying: slavery. In the late 1990s, they turned to the resources of the federal government in order to fight against the modern-day slavery present in the Tomato Industry, leading to seven federal criminal indictments. The CIW’s work in Florida and their close working relationship with federal law enforcement led to the drafting of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, and they were one of the first organizations to put the issue of modern-day slavery squarely within the focus of the Department of Justice. As one United States Attorney put it, the fields of Florida were, and perhaps are, “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” The CIW has assisted prosecutions, provided training for law enforcement, and engaged in high-level advocacy in order to combat and prevent modern-day slavery.
As someone working in Anti-Trafficking, I think it is incredibly important to highlight this type of work.Both forced labor, and bonded labor, have been present in Florida. For that matter, forced labor has found its way into every part of the United States including places like Cincinnati. In this field we are constantly reminded that there is a divide between labor trafficking and sex trafficking. In some ways, the split is appropriate, because the recovery from each is different, and the ways in which people are exploited are divergent between the two broad types of trafficking. But both are a violation of the most basic human dignities and rights. In the United States, too often we think first of sex trafficking and only later do we address labor trafficking. Not only is this an oversight of what is happening even in our backyard, this mischaracterizes the condition of slavery in the world today. The majority of the slaves in the world are in some sort of forced labor situation.
The efforts of the CIW in the field of anti-trafficking (which I like to call modern abolitionism) led to the director of their anti-slavery programs, Laura Germino, receiving a “Trafficking in Persons Report Hero” award in 2010. Along with the others, she will be honored further by being highlighted on an upcoming website (keep in touch with us to see it fully functional by early next year). This is the project on which I work, a website that will hopefully connect our hearts and minds to our modern-day abolitionists around the world. (Left) Laura Germino receiving the award from Hilary Rodham-Clinton.
The Fair Food Program, Corporate Responsibility, and How You Can Make a Difference
After 2000, the Coalition’s focus, which had been on reversing the downward trend in wages, shifted to corporate social responsibility, and prevention of both slavery as well as low-wage work. They believe that the problem can only be fixed at the source, at the supply, when the people who are fulfilling the demand agree to cooperate and to operate their businesses on ethical principles that provide a living wage for the workers who are providing their goods. The CIW sees this as connected to both of their goals: increasing wages and conditions for farm workers in Florida, and preventing human trafficking by providing safe work environments and strict codes of conduct. In the anti-trafficking field, there has been an ongoing conversation about this idea of corporate social responsibility, and how it can help corporations to stop utilizing child or slave labor. (To see a sobering perspective, use this tool to see “how many slaves work for you”)
Around this time, CIW started a Campaign for Fair Food, which has resulted in the Fair Food Program. The advocacy done by the Campaign has resulted in major corporations agreeing to a “penny per pound” increase in what they pay for tomatoes. The earliest agreement was reached in 2005 with Taco Bell. Since then, they have reached similar agreements with McDonalds, Burger King, Whole Foods Market, Subway, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, Wal-Mart, and others. Since the formation of the Fair Food Program, which has been met with glowing reviews from the White House and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, companies sign on not only to the penny per pound wage increase, but to a code of conduct which prohibits forced labor and sexual assault. The penny per pound wage increase has shown to be effective: since 2011, over 10 million dollars have gone towards the wages of farm workers in Florida.
The Clinton Global Initiative, and What is Next for the CIW
The Clinton Global Initiative began in 2005 as a way for the Clinton Foundation to bring together world leaders and NGOs to stimulate funding and awareness. They hold an annual meeting where they bring together these people, and ask them to form what they call “commitments to action.” This year their annual meeting took place in New York City last week. During that week they gave their Global Citizens Award to two of the founders of the CIW. What an incredible journey, from some justifiably disgruntled workers and organizers meeting in a church to an organization that has accomplished so much and was recognized by one of the largest and most influential foundations for human rights and social dignity in the world today.
The next step for CIW, and the way you can get involved, is to help them continue to advocate for corporations to join the Fair Food Program (also see this site for an upcoming documentary about the supply chains in the food industry). The three corporations they are focused on currently are Publix (a supermarket chain), Kroger, and Wendy’s. The only cost for these corporations to join the program is a penny more per pound. That will trickle down to you. So the question I posed in the title of this article is a question I am asking you. Will you pay a penny more?
Caleb Benadum was previously the Program Manager for the Trafficking in Persons Report Global Heroes Network. He graduated from Capital University with a degree in Philosophy, and the University of Cincinnati Law School with a Juris Doctor degree. Having spent much of his life overseas, he is committed to modern-day abolitionism and the promotion of human rights around the world.