Successes & Messes: With a switch in focus, migrant activists gain ground

if you aren’t making headway with one set of partners, look around for others.

By on / Dealmaking

In the U.S. agricultural industry, the migrant workers, many of them undocumented, who toil long hours on fields and farms have long faced abuse, low wages, substandard living conditions, and even enslavement. But a new model of negotiating for better working conditions developed by a group of migrant workers in Immokalee, Fla., is beginning to bring about improvements in the lives of some.

Picking a better partner

In 1993, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) began fighting to improve working conditions and end enslavement in Florida’s tomato industry, as International Justice Mission vice president Holly Burkhalter described in the Washington Post in 2012. At first, the CIW tried to negotiate with the many tomato growers in Florida for improvements. But the growers refused to agree to pay increases and other changes that would drive up tomato prices and potentially lead buyers to turn to produce from Mexico and other nations.

Around 2000, having made little progress with growers over the years, the CIW decided to begin targeting high-volume tomato buyers, such as fast-food chains, instead. Because buyers put pressure on growers to keep prices low, the CIW argued, they were complicit in growers’ mistreatment of workers. If tomato buyers required growers to treat their workers fairly and humanely, the growers would have no choice but to comply.

The CIW’s first target was Taco Bell. It took four years and a nationally waged boycott, but in 2005, CIW convinced Taco Bell to sign a Fair Food Agreement in which it promised to pay a “penny more per pound” of tomatoes, to be passed on to workers, and to help CIW to improve working conditions.

Rolling it out

The CIW went on to negotiate similar agreements with McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods Market, Subway, Chipotle, Aramark, and other leading fast-food, grocery, and food-service chains. Companies that sign a Fair Food Agreement with CIW agree to abide by five mechanisms aimed at improving Florida tomato workers’ lives: (1) a price premium to be paid to workers as a regular line-item bonus; (2) zero tolerance of forced labor, child labor, sexual assault, and other abuses and criminal behavior; (3) worker-to-worker education sessions on rights and responsibilities conducted on farms and on company time; (4) a complaint investigation and resolution process for workers; and (5) auditing of farms by the Fair Food Standards Council, a third- party monitoring organization.

Today, almost all Florida tomato growers are part of the Fair Food Program. Growers that violate the code risk being kicked out of the program and losing access to the nation’s biggest tomato buyers. And although some experts are skeptical that the program could be rolled out nationwide and applied to more crops, given the massive size of the U.S. food industry and the millions of workers involved, the CIW’s Fair Food Program has expanded to include tomato growers in other states, as well as other crops in Florida. “The CIW model is one of the great human rights success stories of our day,” writes Burkhalter.

Beyond tomatoes

If the CIW model does begin to take hold nationwide, its focus on produce buyers rather than suppliers will be the key to its success. The buying power of major brands and worker participation are the only conditions needed for it to spread, CIW cofounder Greg Asbed told the Times.

This October, ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s signed an agreement based heavily on the Fair Food Program
with Migrant Justice, a Vermont dairy farmworkers’ group. Under the agreement, called Milk with Dignity, workers will have the right to one day off per week and will be paid at least the state minimum wage of $10 per hour. They will be given better housing accommodations and at least eight hours of rest between shifts, according to the Times.

During negotiations with Ben & Jerry’s, Migrant Justice drew attention to its cause with protests and marches. Ben & Jerry’s, which has been owned by consumer-goods firm Unilever since 2000, agreed to pay a premium on the milk it buys to support the improvements. The suppliers’ compliance will be monitored by a third party.

When a party won’t cooperate

Borrow these three tactics from CIW’s playbook when a counterpart seems to have little motivation to work with you:

1. Try out different partners. If you aren’t making headway with one set of negotiators, look around to see if there is a different group that (or individual who) can help you reach your goal, perhaps by putting pressure on those who aren’t cooperating with you. Looking at the negotiation from an entirely different vantage point could lead to a breakthrough.

2. Apply pressure. When counterparts don’t have financial incentives to negotiate with you, appeals to their sense of conscience may be more effective. If not, you might try to draw public attention to their perceived ethical or legal lapses to try to induce compliance.

3. Don’t take follow-through for granted. The most stringent agreement in the world will be worthless if it’s
not implemented properly. Be sure to stipulate how your contract will be enforced, assigning third parties whom both sides trust to engage in monitoring and audits, if necessary.

In addition, put dispute-resolution mechanisms in place so you can quickly and inexpensively resolve any conflicts that arise during the life of the deal.

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