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Greg Asbed
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As co-founders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a 5,000 strong worker-based human rights organization, Lucas Benitez and Greg Asbed have revolutionized Florida's $600 million fresh tomato industry, transforming it from one of the most repressive employers in the country to one quickly becoming the most progressive and equitable in the fruit and vegetable industry. CIW is creating today’s blueprint for farmworker justice by spearheading historic fair food agreements with groundbreaking farm labor standards, fair farmworker wages and labor rights education through their Fair Food Program, which is now implemented on over 90 percent Florida's tomato farms. Today, ten multi-billion dollar national companies have signed on to CIW's Fair Food Program and CIW continues to forge critical alliances among tomato growers, workers, food retailers and the community.

Entries by Greg Asbed

Why Consumers Matter in Realizing Workers' Rights

(1) Comments | Posted September 4, 2015 | 2:26 PM

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Protest-Woodward. Farmworkers and consumers unite thousands strong in marches, fasts and protests to demand food retailers join the Fair Food Program. Ahold USA, which owns supermarket brands Stop & Shop, Giant, Martin's and Peapod, just joined the Program in July 2015. Credit: Forest Woodward

In...

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The Secret Life of Fruit: Five Startling Things Your Grocer Won't Tell You

(12) Comments | Posted November 14, 2014 | 8:55 AM

Not too long ago, the main concern customers had about a fruit or vegetable was whether or not it was ripe. But over time, their questions about produce have grown increasingly sophisticated: Is this tomato local? Are these peaches organic? And grocers have been gleefully riding the wave, touting products...

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Fear and Fair Cannot Coexist...

(0) Comments | Posted October 13, 2014 | 9:58 AM

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Last month's horrific massacre of student human rights activists in Guerrero serves as an awful reminder of why there will be no "Fair Food Program" in the foreseeable future of Mexico's tomato industry...

Mass graves.  Horribly disfigured corpses....

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Worker-Driven Social Responsibility (WSR): A New Idea for a New Century

(1) Comments | Posted June 16, 2014 | 1:25 PM

 

If you are even a casual reader of this site you know this:  The Fair Food Program has effected unprecedented change in Florida's fields since it was implemented across 90% of the state's tomato industry in 2011.  It has eliminated or greatly reduced longstanding abuses from sexual harassment to modern-day slavery, added over $14 million in Fair Food Premiums to farm payrolls, and earned the praise of human rights experts from the White House to the United Nations.  It has been called "one of the great human rights success stories of our day" in the Washington Post and "the best workplace monitoring program... in the US" on the front page of the New York Times.

But even some of our most loyal readers might not know the "secret" behind the Fair Food Program's success, even though the answer is deceptively simple: The Fair Food Program is a workers' rights program that is designed, monitored, and enforced by the workers whose rights it is intended to protect.  In the Fair Food Program, workers are not just at the table, they are at the head of the table.  And because workers are the only actors in the supply chain with a vital and abiding interest in seeing that their rights are effectively monitored and enforced, they have, in the case of the Fair Food Program, constructed a system that actually works.  

In short, the Fair Food Program is a truly new and distinct form of human rights program that can be called Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR).  And thanks to the workers' leading role in designing the program, its structure and function stand in stark contrast to the traditional corporate-led approach to social responsibility, known by its acronym CSR, as do its results.  

What follows is a quick look at the differences between WSR and CSR along several key dimensions of social responsibility.  The conclusion of that comparison is inescapable: If a human rights program is to be effective, the humans whose rights are in question must be key players in -- the subjects, not the objects of -- the design and implementation of the program.  

It starts with how the problem is defined: Public relations crisis (CSR) vs. Human rights crisis (WSR)...

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We have established that the fundamental difference between Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) -- the difference from which all other distinctions logically flow -- lies in the question of who is at the helm.  Does the corporation whose supply chain is riddled with human rights violations drive the program, or do the workers whose basic human rights are being violated on a daily basis?  And the first difference between CSR and WSR that derives from this distinction is the very definition of the problem to be solved by the implementation of a social responsibility program.  

In the case of CSR, in which corporations control the process, the problem to be solved is, almost invariably, a public relations crisis prompted by the revelation of gross human rights violations in a company's supply chain.  Factory fires in Bangladesh, suicides in Chinese assembly factories, slavery in Florida's fields -- all are examples of tragic human rights violations reflecting severely degraded labor environments that, though they had existed for years if not generations, had gone unaddressed by the brand name corporations connected to them until the inhumane conditions flared sufficiently to draw the attention of the press.  The moment when 60 Minutes and the New York Times come knocking at executives' door demanding an explanation for the abuses behind their company's products is the moment when most CSR efforts are engaged in earnest.  And the purpose of those efforts -- the problem they set out to solve -- is to ease the public relations crisis caused by the exposure of long-standing human rights violations.  There are, of course, exceptions to this scenario, companies that take pre-emptive measures to ensure that their suppliers meet the highest human rights standards in their particular industries, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

In the case of WSR, on the other hand, the problem is defined entirely differently.  It is the human rights crisis itself -- not the public relations crisis to which it gives rise -- that is the problem to be solved when workers themselves are at the helm.  Unsafe factories, grinding poverty, being forced to work against your will or to perform sexual favors for your boss under the threat of violence -- those are the conditions that workers set out to eliminate when they build a social responsibility program to reform their own workplaces.  And those are the problems that the Fair Food Program was designed to detect and eliminate in Florida's fields when it was put into place across the state three seasons ago.

Code of Conduct: Generic, corporate-drafted (CSR) vs. Specific, worker-crafted (WSR)...

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In CSR, codes of conduct are called "Vendor Standards" and are generic across the dozens -- or hundreds, or even thousands -- of industries any given corporation may purchase from in its supply chain (supermarkets, for example, buy and sell thousands of products, while supermarkets/department stores sell still more).  Corporation like to speak of their "robust" vendor standards, but rarely, when it comes to labor standards, do they require anything more of their suppliers than to comply with all applicable laws.

In WSR, workers craft industry specific codes of conduct that reflect the particular rights and reforms necessary to transform a brutal job into a more modern, more human workplace.  WSR codes contain provisions designed to get at longstanding abuses that only workers could know, the forms of exploitation and humiliation unique to each particular industry that workers have experienced for generations, but no outside "expert" could ever divine.  In the case of the Fair Food Code of Conduct, there are numerous examples of such specific reforms that go above and beyond the law, from the elimination of the traditional requirement to overfill the picking buckets ("copete") pictured above (a practice that resulted in workers effectively picking and hauling one unpaid 32-lb bucket or tomatoes for every ten that they picked before the FFP went into effect), to the requirement to provide shade and time clocks in the fields, the right to leave the fields (without fear of being fired) if a worker feels that his or her health or safety is in danger, the prohibition against charging for housing if it brings workers' wages below minimum wage, and the penny-per-pound wage bonus, just to name a few.  

No vendor standards drafted by an attorney working for Kroger in Cincinnati, Ohio, could ever contemplate the need for those reforms, and no code of conduct ever has, until workers in Immokalee finally won the opportunity to implement their blueprint for a fairer tomato industry, thanks to the Campaign for Fair Food.

Monitoring: Perfunctory and audit-based (CSR) vs. Participatory and complaint-based (WSR)...

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When corporations monitor their supply chains (if they do at all), they do so through quick-hitting audits, perfunctory snapshots of working conditions taken over the course of a few hours or, at most, a couple of days, with little or no worker participation.  The visits are either self-audits executed by an in-house team or -- when a particularly acute public relations crisis requires that a company make a better show of its concern -- third-party audits contracted out to one of dozens of professional auditing agencies that have come into existence over the past two decades to serve the needs of corporations facing increasing pubic scrutiny of their supply chain practices.  In the vast majority of CSR efforts, the approach to monitoring is top-down, shallow, and momentary.  As a result, CSR monitoring is a woefully ineffective means to get a measure of the intricate and often shadowy complex of human experiences, schemes, and interactions that make up the toxic workplaces at the end of far too many corporate supply chains.

In the WSR approach, workers themselves are the front line of a multi-layered monitoring system designed to create a 24-hour, wall-to-wall net to capture violations of the code of conduct and weed out the bad actors and practices that cause those violations.  In the Fair Food Program, for example, this is achieved through several key monitoring measures.  Worker-to-worker education is carried out (on the clock) twice a season by teams of CIW members on farms around the state.  The education program -- combined with the distribution (at the time of hire) of a rights booklet and the viewing of a video produced by the CIW explaining the rights under the Fair Food code of conduct -- is designed to ensure that each and every worker knows his or her rights and how to enforce them.  A 24-hr complaint line, answered live by the same FFSC staffers who investigate the complaints, ensures that workers' input does not go ignored and helps identify and eliminate the sources of code violations.  In the first three seasons of the FFP, nearly 600 complaints have been lodged under the FFP, the majority of which have helped carve, complaint by complaint, a more humane workplace out of a world once known as the "Harvest of Shame."  A strictly enforced zero tolerance policy for retaliation against workers has reinforced workers' faith in, and use of, the FFP complaint process.  

But the WSR approach is not solely complaint-based.  The Fair Food Program also includes rigorous farm office and field audits carried out by the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC).  And unlike CSR audits, FFP audits are in-depth events that exceed standard audit industry practices on many levels, most importantly on that of worker interviews.  FFP auditors speak with a minimum of 50% of workers on any farm, with that number reaching as high as 90% or more depending on the size of the farm, while CSR audits hover around 10-20%.  Further, FFP audits monitor not just outcomes, but the systems in place on the farms -- or not in place, as was the case on the majority of farms when the program was launched in 2011 -- that are necessary to make compliance even possible.  Much of the work of the FFSC over the past three seasons has been guiding the growers through the restructuring of their supervisory, payroll, and management systems to allow for greater, more effective communication between workers and their employers and the elimination of longtime barriers to progress for farmworkers.   

In short, workers are the lead actors in the monitoring of the Fair Food Program, from the education at the base of it to the auditing at the top, placing the job of monitoring human rights in the fields squarely in the hands of those who work in the fields.  

Enforcement: Market-first (CSR) vs. Market-based (WSR)...

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And that brings us to the last -- and in practical terms perhaps most important -- difference between CSR and WSR in this analysis: the enforcement of human rights standards.  

For the vast, vast majority of corporations, getting goods to market, smoothly and without interruption, takes priority over protecting human rights in their suppliers' operations.  Lots of priority.  Vast sums of money and human resources are directed toward effective and efficient supply chain management, while the social responsibility departments of most corporations are budgetary afterthoughts.  This imbalance results in what can be termed a "market-first" approach to human rights, which in practical terms means that most corporations will, and do, go to great lengths to avoid cutting off relations with a favored supplier, even if it means turning a blind eye to sometimes horrific abuses.  

As a result, CSR is, in practice, defined by a near total lack of enforcement.  Publix spokesperson Dwaine Stevens' famous words in response to a reporter's question about forced labor in the grocery giant's supply chain -- "If there are some atrocities going on, it's not our business" -- expresses this unpleasant reality with an admirable economy.  Only the most overwhelming waves of bad publicity can dislodge a preferred supplier from most corporations' supply chains.  And that means that in most cases, once the media coverage and expressions of grave concern have ebbed, business as usual is, once again, the order of the day. 

WSR is an entirely different way of doing business.  In the case of the Fair Food Program, when egregious human rights violations -- "atrocities" in Mr. Stevens' terms, "zero tolerance violations" in the FFP code of conduct -- are found on a farm, that farm is suspended from the program and the twelve participating buyers whose logos are pictured above must suspend purchases from that grower.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  The same goes for growers who refuse or fail to correct non-zero tolerance violations, as well.  These clear and strict market consequences send an unmistakable message to the growers who operate under the Fair Food Program, a message that has fundamentally changed the Florida tomato industry in just three seasons, prompting observers to marvel at the transformation (from "In Florida Tomato Fields, a Penny Buys Progress," New York Times, 4/24/14):

"When I first visited Immokalee, I heard appalling stories of abuse and modern slavery," said Susan L. Marquis, dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, a public policy institution in Santa Monica, Calif. "But now the tomato fields in Immokalee are probably the best working environment in American agriculture. In the past three years, they've gone from being the worst to the best."  

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In summary...

Standards without proper monitoring aren't even worth the paper they are printed on.  And enforcement without the threat of consequences when suppliers fail to comply with those standards is simply impossible.  CSR is characterized by shallow standards, ineffective monitoring, and a near total absence of enforcement.

WSR, on the other hand, is defined by the participation of workers at every level, from the setting of standards to their monitoring and enforcement.  It was born in the tomato fields of Florida, and today elements of WSR are showing up in workplaces as varied as construction sites in Texas and apparel sweatshops in Bangladesh.  It represents a potentially powerful new way of doing business that respects and protects human rights, not only in the US agricultural industry, but elsewhere in the country and around the globe.  

© Coalition of Immokalee...

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Mandela: 'While Poverty Persists, There Is No True Freedom'

(0) Comments | Posted December 12, 2013 | 2:34 PM


The passing of a hero reminds us of the deep interconnections between poverty and all other human rights, the urgency of our own fight...


Some global events rise so far above the din of our daily lives that, no matter what our work or momentary preoccupation, we have no choice but to stop and reflect on their significance.  The passing of Nelson Mandela is one of those events.  And its significance has a deep and abiding connection to the fight for fundamental human rights that farmworkers started twenty years ago here in Immokalee. 

There are many ways to remember Nelson Mandela.  As the father of a nation, a man whose almost unimaginable personal sacrifices forced the world to face the unconscionable violence and evil of South Africa's social order and allowed the country he loved to build a new nation on the rock of the struggle he came to embody.  As a flesh and blood symbol of the very best angels of humanity, of patience, of peace, of the spirit of reconciliation.  As a tireless fighter for racial equality and civil rights. 

Please take a few moments today to watch the above video of a speech from 2005 by Mandela in London's Trafalgar Square.  It touches on a part of his legacy that is perhaps less known, his undying commitment to ending poverty and economic inequality.  Mandela agreed to appear at the Make Poverty History rally in London despite the fact that he had retired from public life a year earlier.

"As you know, I recently formally announced my retirement from public life and should really not be here.  However, as long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest," Mandela said at the top of his speech.

What he went on to say lifts the fight against poverty to the level of his own fight against apartheid and, reaching even deeper into history, to the movement for the abolition of slavery.  It is enormously moving to hear a world leader discuss poverty and economic inequality in such stark and unflinching terms. Here is an extended excerpt:

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"Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times - times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation - that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils.

The Global Campaign for Action Against Poverty can take its place as a public movement alongside the movement to abolish slavery and the international solidarity against apartheid.

And I can never thank the people of Britain enough for their support through those days of the struggle against apartheid. Many stood in solidarity with us, just a few yards from this spot.

Through your will and passion, you assisted in consigning that evil system forever to history. But in this new century, millions of people in the world's poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved, and in chains.

They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free.

Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.

And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.

While poverty persists, there is no true freedom."

"While poverty persists, there is no true freedom."  In those words lies the connection to the movement for Fair Food that prompted us to stop and reflect on the passing of Nelson Mandela in Immokalee.  

More times than we care to remember, our conversations with food corporations considering joining the Fair Food Program have begun with some variation on this theme: "We'd love to be able to sign on to your social responsibility program, but the penny is the problem."  

Encuentro_2013_4957_bwYet far from being the problem, the Fair Food Premium -- the penny-per-pound surcharge required of the corporations to redress the grinding poverty that their volume purchasing power has contributed to creating for farmworkers at the base of their supply chains for decades --  is in fact the necessary catalyst for all the other human rights contained in the Fair Food Program (FFP).

The FFP is founded on the principle of worker participation.  For the FFP to achieve its goals of identifying and eliminating the bad actors and abuses that have plagued the agricultural industry for generations, workers themselves must be willing and able to monitor their own rights under the Fair Food Code of Conduct.  But people who are forced, by abject poverty, to choose between risking their jobs to defend their rights, on the one hand, and keeping their jobs to be able to put food on their families' tables, on the other, will choose food on the table every time.  That is the reality -- eviction, hunger, deprivation -- when sub-poverty wages leave workers with virtually no safety net.  

Farm labor poverty must be addressed first, so that workers can be freed from this crippling fear and empowered to stand up for their rights. Together with the FFP's strict prohibition against retaliation, the Fair Food bonus funded by the penny, which grows with every corporation that joins the Program, affords workers an additional measure of economic freedom to exercise their rights under the Code. Only then can the promise of a new day for farmworkers be realized, because otherwise the resources necessary for real monitoring and enforcement across tens of thousands of acres, and for tens of thousands of workers, would be prohibitive, and the Program would be just another empty assurance of social responsibility.  

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To their credit, many of those same corporations, through dialogue and careful consideration, come to understand the centrality of the penny per pound to the structure of the Fair Food Program as a whole.  Some even embrace the notion that prices can drive poverty and that they have a fundamental responsibility, given their immense market power, to ensure that their purchasing practices do not unintentionally result in human suffering at the bottom of their supply chains.

But others don't, and so the struggle for fundamental human rights in the fields continues.  

It is a struggle in which today echo the words of a man who gave his life to the fight for human rights, of a man whom we now, sadly, must allow to leave us and pass into the firmament of history, to take his place among the great heroes of our time. ...

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Massive Mexican Slavery Operation Underscores Need for Market Consequences for Human Rights Violations

(2) Comments | Posted July 1, 2013 | 5:34 PM


An infested toilet is seen at a tomato processing plant in Toliman, Jalisco state, Mexico on June 11, 2013. (HECTOR GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, a horrifying story of human rights abuse and exploitation broke when Mexican authorities rescued nearly...

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UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights 'Impressed' With Fair Food Program

(0) Comments | Posted May 16, 2013 | 6:03 PM

UN: Fair Food Program "innovatively addresses core worker concerns," has "independent and robust enforcement mechanism," addresses "governance gaps relating to labour issues"

At a press conference in Washington, D.C., last week, the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human...

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Super Bowl Ad Extolling Virtues of Farm Labor Fails to Value, Include Farmworkers

(35) Comments | Posted February 6, 2013 | 3:35 PM

Millions of people watching the Super Bowl this past Sunday were treated to a two-minute, lyrical paean to America's farmers. Beautifully paced to a slideshow background of stunning images of rural life, the ad -- promoting a popular line of pick up trucks -- featured the words of Paul Harvey, from a 1978 address to the Future Farmers of America. Here's an excerpt:

"God said, 'I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper, then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.' So God made a farmer."

The ad was one of the most discussed in the aftermath of the annual advertising gala that is the Super Bowl, and its YouTube version has garnered more than two million views since Sunday. We have embedded the original version here above for those who have yet to see it themselves.

All in all, the ad was a huge success. Except... The vision of rural America at the heart of the ad -- the visual definition of the farmer God made that is the subject of the two minute poem -- is, almost without exception, monochrome as can be. Out of 21 images of people representing farmers, 19 are white, one is African American, one is Latino.

Yet, today, the vast majority of physical labor done on the vast majority of commercial fruit and vegetable farms in this country is done by farmworkers -- the vast, vast majority of whom are not white. There are an estimated three million farmworkers toiling on farms in rural communities from California to Florida and everywhere in between, yet, in an ad extolling the virtues of farm work, the people who work on farms are almost nowhere to be found.

And it didn't take long for people to notice. Here's one video response to the ad, and there are more:

 

So how could the ad get it so wrong? How could an ad celebrating the American farmer paint such a distorted picture of the people who actually work on farms today? How could it make it through the intense editing and review that a multi-million dollar Super Bowl ad faces before airing on the big day?

There are many answers to this question -- the country's original sin of racial discrimination chief among them. But there is another answer that isn't as immediately obvious, and that is the traditional undervaluation of agricultural labor -- from chattel slavery to convict lease and sharecropping to the present-day migrant farm-labor system. We have written about this before, in the context of the draconian anti-immigrant laws passed in recent years in Georgia and Alabama that cost local farms billions of dollars in lost crops when the laws chased experienced farmworkers away from their jobs harvesting watermelons, peaches, and other crops. But it is at work here again when the team that put this ad together chose to portray a vision of farm life that ceased to exist a century ago, if it ever existed at all.

It is not wrong to extol the labor, daily sacrifices, and invaluable contribution to American life of our nation's farmworkers. It is wrong to paint farmworkers white in order to do so.

The reality is that farmworkers pick the food we eat, and most of those workers are immigrant workers whose backbreaking labor -- the selfsame noble labor exalted in the ad's moving words -- is systematically underpaid and under-appreciated. If the words read so powerfully by Paul Harvey are able to reach deep inside of us and move us to buy a truck, they should be powerful enough to move us to reward the work of our country's three million farmworkers and provide a living wage and dignified working conditions in return for their virtuous...

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Could Congressional Indifference Kill the 'Most Important Anti-Trafficking Law Ever Passed'?

(0) Comments | Posted January 17, 2013 | 9:34 AM

Twenty years ago, Laura Germino and I left the dusty streets of Immokalee, Florida, and headed north, bound for the Justice Department in Washington, DC. We carried with us a binder full of evidence from our investigation into a brutal modern-day slavery ring that was holding tomato pickers captive in...

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March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food

(0) Comments | Posted December 14, 2012 | 1:49 PM

Spring action announced! CIW, allies to march 150 miles to Lakeland in March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food!
2/20/2000: The two-week, 230-mile "March for Dignity, Dialogue, and a Fair Wage" (right) begins in Ft. Myers...
... 3/3/2013: Join...

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A Tale of Two Thanksgivings

(0) Comments | Posted November 22, 2012 | 9:20 AM

This holiday season, ask Publix to join us at the Fair Food table...

The holiday season is upon us, which means it's time again to gather around the table with loved ones to celebrate another year of life together, of new beginnings and old friends, of triumphs and...

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Fighting Sexual Harassment in the Fields

(2) Comments | Posted July 26, 2012 | 2:35 PM

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Photo: CIW/Forest Woodward


Major EEOC Settlement Underscores Value of Fair Food Program

In early 2009, two women walked into the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) office complaining of some truly horrific conditions at an Immokalee tomato farm, one of...

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Field Notes on Food Justice: Why Your Local Grocery Store Makes Farmworkers Poor

(0) Comments | Posted May 22, 2012 | 3:39 PM

"Fresh and Fair from Florida"...

Five words that would look so beautiful stamped on your next tomato purchase.

Five words that would signify a revolution in agricultural working conditions.

Five words that today remain tantalizingly just out of reach, even with two decades of tireless organizing by the

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