European governments take note of Fair Food Program’s power to resolve longstanding human rights conflicts…

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Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) publishes brief on Fair Food Program in quarterly magazine…

In an effort to provide a forum for economic cooperation and reduce tensions during the height of the Cold War, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was formed in 1975 in Helsinki, Finland.  Since then, it has expanded to include 57 member states — including the US — from Europe, Central Asia, and North America.  Today the OSCE has grown to become “the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization” with a mandate that includes “issues such as arms control and the promotion of human rights, freedom of the press and fair elections.”

Last September, CIW representatives were asked to present on the Fair Food Program and the CIW’s anti-slavery efforts at the OSCE’s Conference on Prevention of Trafficking in Human Beings for Labour Exploitation in Supply Chains in Berlin.  The conference was described as a “high-level event… part of the OSCE’s ongoing effort to raise awareness about the problem of labour exploitation in supply chains and to advocate for increased actions at the government level across the OSCE region with the aim of adopting measures to prevent and combat this form of modern day slavery.”

The FFP’s unique worker-driven social responsibility model was a hit among the government representatives, non-governmental human rights organizations, and corporate social responsibility executives gathered there, providing a rare case study of successful trafficking prevention and human rights enforcement in an otherwise bleak landscape of problems without effective solutions.  As a result, the OSCE requested that the CIW contribute an article to its quarterly magazine, Security Community, and this month that article was published.  We are including it here in its entirety, but you can find it, and more from Europe’s continuing discussion around the human rights and security concerns posed by the region’s growing refugee crisis, here:

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In the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Programme, farm labourers partner with supermarket giants and fast-food chains to keep their supply chains fair. The programme has been singled out by the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights as a uniquely promising model for use in low-wage environments around the world.

Immokalee, Florida, is at the centre of one of the United States’ most important agricultural regions, a major source of tomatoes and other produce. In 2011, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker-led human rights organization, launched the Fair Food Programme (FFP), a pioneering partnership among farmworkers, growers and retail food corporations that aims to guarantee better wages and humane working conditions for farm labourers. 

Based in Florida, the FFP has grown to cover the states of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey and is being adapted in Vermont. It partners with the giants of the food industry: the supermarket chains Walmart and Ahold, the fast-food leaders Subway and Burger King and the foodservice corporations Sodexo and Compass Group.

Worker enforcement of standards

The FFP employs a ground-breaking approach to monitoring and enforcing workers’ rights, the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model.  The WSR approach is founded on two distinct and equally important pillars: worker participation and an intense focus on enforcement.

Standards are a necessary element of any social accountability programme. But only a comprehensive regime of enforcement can convert standards into real change. Retailers have a powerful enforcement tool in their hands in that they can choose to buy only from socially responsible suppliers.  But they can only wield their buying power effectively if they know when it is necessary to use it.

In order to provide its participating buyers with reliable information upon which to base their purchasing decisions, the FFP employs three essential transparency and enforcement mechanisms. The first is worker education, which in the FFP is provided by other workers. Worker education is not only essential to gaining real-time insight into workplace conditions, it creates an extremely economical multiplier that effectively deputizes tens of thousands of workers as frontline monitors of their own rights.

A corollary to educating workers about their rights is the need to provide them with the means to report violations of those rights.  In the FFP, this is a 24/7 complaint resolution system, accessible to workers without fear of retaliation. It creates what is essentially a live video feed from the workplace to the oversight agency, ensuring that those farm bosses who might violate their workers’ rights know that their chances of being caught are high. Since its inception five seasons ago, more than 1,500 complaints have been filed and processed, with 80 per cent resolved in well less than a month.  

Finally, the Fair Food Program uses in-depth audits, which are necessary to uncover unwanted conduct that is invisible to individual workers, like tampering with minimum wage calculations where workers are paid according to a piece rate. Audits also provide an opportunity to talk to workers about their perceptions of the work environment. But that only yields meaningful results if the workers know their rights and trust the auditors and if the auditors talk to enough workers to reach conclusions that are statistically significant. The Fair Foods Standards Council, the organization responsible for conducting the FFP audits, interviews at least half of the workers present – hundreds of workers on the larger farms –, which is well above standard auditing practice in the industry.  

In sum, worker education, a confidential complaints resolution mechanism and regular audits, backed by retailers’ “power of the purchasing order”, are the essential elements that have allowed the FFP to gradually but inexorably transform what was not long ago considered one of the most backward sectors in the entire United States produce industry into a fair working environment.

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