CIW Worker-to-Worker Education Team takes human rights on the road…
One week ago, as workers plucked the last buckets of tomatoes from vines here in Florida and the sun set on the state’s 2015-2016 season, CIW education team members packed a van with their bags, boxes of education booklets and provisions for a week on the road, and headed north to Georgia and South and North Carolina. The summer of 2016 marks the second season of the Fair Food Program’s expansion out of Florida and up the east coast to six new states, from Georgia, through South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and all the way to New Jersey. And today, as the first northern education trip of 2016 comes to a close, we bring you first-hand reports and reflections from the front lines of the Fair Food Program.
Workers’ voices from the North
From Georgia to North Carolina, over 1,200 workers received education on their rights under the Fair Food Program in early morning sessions conducted by fellow workers from CIW over the past week. Today, we want bring you some of the workers’ own reflections and feedback from those sessions, insights straight from the rapidly changing fields that provide the best possible documentation of the truly groundbreaking impact of Fair Food Program and its northward expansion.
“Thank you for being here today. I am very thankful to know more about my rights as a worker.”
“It is a beautiful thing to have education in our native language. It is a very good thing in this Program.”
The Fair Food Program’s unique worker-to-worker education sessions build on the point-of-hire education materials that every single worker in the Program receives before he or she steps foot onto the field for the first time at a participating farm. The FFP’s Know Your Rights trilingual booklet and video have become familiar, standard fare for workers, providing each harvester with the tools and knowledge to be frontline monitors of their own rights, every hour of every day in the fields.
Health & Safety Committee:
“It felt very good to be able to give suggestions and feedback to the company [about health and safety risks]. After every meeting with the company, I would go back to share everything that we talked about with my co-workers.”
In addition to establishing basic health and safety protections for workers, the FFP requires that each crew form a Health & Safety Committee. The committees are composed of harvesters who draw on their personal experience of day-to-day conditions in the field to discuss innovative risk-prevention measures, ideas from the grassroots of the workplace to better protect workers’ health and safety in what is surely one of the most physically demanding and dangerous jobs in the U.S.
“This Program should be everywhere and cover everything… When are you coming to Tennessee?”
Although the Fair Food Program was born in the Florida tomato industry, over the past year it has grown rapidly to cover farms in the Florida strawberry industry, the Florida bell pepper industry, and in six northern states. As CIW member Cruz Salucio told workers at the beginning of every education session beyond Florida’s borders: “The bosses can no longer say, ‘You’re not in Florida anymore’ when he does not respect your rights on the job. Today, workers’ basic rights are respected here and in six other states across the East Coast.”
“All of the rights in the booklet are important… the cupping rule, for example, is very important it helps us earn better wages.”
In addition to the FFP’s famous “Penny-per-Pound” bonus — paid to growers by participating buyers like Walmart, Whole Foods, and McDonald’s, and then passed along to workers in the form of a bonus to improve wages — the Program’s proven ability to combat wage theft in the industry has had a substantial impact on workers’ wages. Before the Program, workers were forced to “cup” their buckets, adding four to five unpaid pounds of tomatoes to round off every 32-lb bucket. Today, thanks to the worker-designed Fair Food Code of Conduct, this routine practice of unpaid labor has been eliminated, raising workers’ wages an additional 5-10%.
“…I have a question. The large companies will not buy from the farm that is not respecting workers’ rights? So this Program really has power… but [in order for our rights to become real] we all have to work together.”
Perhaps most importantly, every single page of the Know Your Rights booklet — from the right to work free of sexual violence and harassment to the right to shade in the fields — is backed by legally-binding agreements with major retailers that require buyers to only buy from growers who are in good standing with the Fair Food Program. Those “market consequences” — or the “power of the purchasing order” as it is known inside the industry — provides a powerful economic incentive for growers to get into compliance and stay in compliance with the Fair Food Program’s strict human rights standards.
Past, present and future collide…
In addition to visiting the farms themselves, the CIW education team traveled the oak- and palmetto-lined back roads of the south, the region’s rich history giving the experience of expanding the Fair Food Program’s protections to new fields even deeper meaning. Just a few short miles down the road from the Lady’s Island, South Carolina, farm where CIW members conducted education sessions stood the famous Penn Center, a cultural and political landmark that served as one of the first schools for freed slaves in the 1800s, a regional heart to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1900s, and a beacon of cultural preservation in the 2000s.
Here is an excerpt from the Penn Center’s website:
Founded in 1862, the Penn School was one of the first academic schools in the South established by two Northern missionaries, Laura M. Towne and Ellen Murray, to provide a formal education for formerly enslaved West Africans. In 1901, the Penn School expanded to become the Penn Normal, Agricultural and Industrial School after adopting the industrial arts curriculum taught at Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes. As a result, African Americans benefitted greatly from the quality educational training at Penn School, which stood at the forefront of progressivism and reform as it helped to advance an entire generation and community into the Industrial Age after slavery.
Later, in the 1960’s, Penn Center took up the mantle of social justice by ushering in the Civil Rights Movement and serving as the only location in South Carolina where interracial groups, such as Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Peace Corps, could have safe sanctuary in an era of mandated de jure segregation. Local citizens participated in training in voter citizenship and community empowerment classes.
Following in the hallowed footsteps of countless educators and human rights leaders past, today’s FFP education crew is breaking ground for a new era of U.S. agriculture, leaving generations of exploitation behind for a future of Fair Food. With the Fair Food Program’s unprecedented success in the Florida tomato industry — and now on tomato farms along the east coast — serving as a roadmap, workers are forging a path toward a better agricultural industry, one increasingly defined by dignity, human rights, transparency, and partnership.