Immokalee, Florida, is known for producing nearly all of the winter tomatoes in the United States. Up until recently, the town also had a reputation for being home to some of the worst labor exploitation in the country, with sexual violence, wage theft, and assault occurring regularly in the tomato fields. The working conditions were so bad that the town was considered “ground zero for modern slavery” in the United States.
But one group has spent the last two decades transforming the conditions for Florida farmworkers. Through the use of boycotts, supply chain agreements, and an innovative monitoring program, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has made massive inroads in creating a safe workplace for one of labor’s most exploited communities.
Gerardo Reyes Chavez is one of the workers involved. A farmworker most of his life, he heard about the coalition from roommates who were taking part in one of the group’s anti-slavery cased in the late 1990s. Now, he’s one of the group’s key leaders. Reyes joined an Aspen Institute panel last month to discuss the methods behind the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ success.
“We don’t consider ourselves activists, organizers. I mean, from my perspective, and the perspective of many of us that form the coalition, we’re just people fighting for a better life,” Reyes told the audience. “And we have been able to achieve really important agreements that are transforming the lives of thousands of workers.”
In 2000, Reyes marched for more than 230 miles alongside other farmworkers from Ft. Myers to Orlando to demand a better wage and dignity in the fields. The group carried a brown-skinned papier-mache version of the Statue of Liberty, her torch replaced with a bucket of tomatoes — a creation that currently lives in the Smithsonian.
The action compelled Reyes to deepen his involvement in the coalition’s work. Around that time, the group was looking at the industry powers that they’d need to connect with in order to create systemic change, and came to a key realization: using boycotts and publicity campaigns, they could push the industry giants, like fast food companies and grocers, to demand that the growers they purchased from uphold workers’ rights.
After a multi-year boycott, the group came to an agreement with Taco Bell. The fast food company promised to pay more for its tomatoes and restrict business to growers who adhered to labor standards. Several other companies followed suit, paving the way for the Fair Food Program.
The program brings workers, growers, and buyers together to ensure that farmworkers won’t be exploited. Buyers agree to only purchase tomatoes from growers within the program, who are held accountable by independent audits and a worker-driven complaint system. The program is also notable for being designed and enforced by the very workers it is meant to protect.
“We were not looking for experts, because we are experts in our field,” Reyes says. “And contrary to what many people and many experts said about farmworkers, we also have the wits that are necessary to be able to create what we created.”
The core philosophy behind the Fair Food Program is remarkably simple. The coalition sums it up as worker-driven social responsibility. Greg Asbed, the co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, says the model provides far more accountability than corporate social responsibility. Under those programs, companies will say they enforce labor standards by conducting audits, but they’ll only interview a small percentage of workers. The growers will also know that the auditors are coming, and can prepare workers for what to say. “The whole thing is essentially not just a snapshot, it’s a faked snapshot,” Asbed told the audience at the Aspen Institute.
Contrast that with the Fair Food Program. It includes an education component to ensure that workers know their rights. A well-outlined complaint system has consequences if growers retaliate against workers. The third-party audit system is required to conduct in-depth interviews with a large percentage of each farm’s workers. And it’s all held together by a legally-binding accountability apparatus. If the audit finds an issue at a farm, or a worker’s complaint goes unresolved, the grower could lose their status as a partner and forfeit their ability to sell to the retailers who have signed on to the agreement.
The worker-centric model is behind the success of the program, Reyes says. “Every worker, when they hear their rights and they know they are guaranteed, they will complain,” Reyes says. “For the first time, they saw how the abuses were fixed, and the people who reported them were not fired or beaten, as in the past.”
Reyes is also sure to note that the worker-driven model is about dignity, not charity. “Some people when we tell the story, they want to empty their garage and bring it to our doorsteps,” he says. “We talk to people and say yeah, that is nice, but what we need is justice. We don’t work 10 to 14 hours a day every day of the year that work is available and don’t wonder or don’t ask ourselves why is it that we still have to depend on people, goodwill, to put food on the table.”
Instead, Reyes calls for potential allies to join them in the fight. The group has expanded to include tomato farmworkers in other states, and now organize strawberry and pepper farms within Florida as well.
They’re also continuing the push to include more buyers in the Fair Food Program. Their current target: Wendy’s. The fast food company has opted to purchase tomatoes from Mexico instead of signing on to the worker-driven agreement. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has decided to bring the fight to the doorstep of Wendy’s board chairman Nelson Peltz, with a five-day fast outside his Manhattan hedge fund office beginning on March 11.
The protest is specifically linked to the sexual violence women face in the tomato fields, a key issue for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Their message: time’s up for corporate leaders like Peltz, who have the ability to sign on to agreements like the Fair Food Program, which have made a marked difference in reducing sexual violence for women workers.
“Nelson Peltz is a key player within the structure of Wendy’s. He’s the president of a hedge fund called Trian Partners,” Reyes told the audience. “They invest a lot of money, profit a lot, and have a lot of power. But they refuse to use it. So we are going to their headquarters to ask them to exercise their power in a responsible way.”
Power is at the crux of the Fair Food Program. Bringing workers into supply chain discussions gives them a measure of control over their own lives. And that’s what the movement is about for Reyes.
“The food you have on your table, all the celebrations you have at that table with your family, with your friends. That food came from somewhere,” Reyes told the audience. “We are the people responsible for those moments, too — whether you have seen us, thought about us, or not. And we’re asking for the same ability — to be able to do just that with our own families. But we need you to recognize that, to stand with us, and to follow our lead.”
Negin Owliaei is a researcher with the Institute for Policy Studies and a co-editor of Inequality.org.