The recently released 2023 Trafficking In Persons Report calls on businesses to partner with NGOs to ensure forced labor is not part of their global supply chains, and for consumers to demand businesses guarantee their products are not made with forced labor.
The Fair Food Program is a great example of just what that can look like. Acting as a partnership between farmers, farmworkers and retail food companies the Fair Food Program aims to benefit everyone in their supply chain from workers through to consumers and prevent modern slavery from entering at all. Since its inception in 2011 they have been working in 11 states and four countries and now they are now expanding into Colorado.
Worker driven = humane wages and working conditions
Agricultural workers around the world can be made extremely vulnerable to labor exploitation and forced labor due to poverty, uncertain visa status and language/cultural barriers. They are also among the most important as they plant, cultivate, harvest and help distribute the food we eat every day, no matter where we live. Conditions for agricultural workers in the U.S. have been plagued for decades with exploitation from wage theft to sexual harassment in the fields, to days without water or shade for breaks. If workers try to speak up or make a complaint, they are fired or punished with the hardest work.
Under the Fair Food Program protections for workers are worker-driven and voluntary. If a grower or buyer wants to join, they have to follow the program rules. A “cooperative rather than confrontational” approach that includes strict criteria and a legally binding requirement for both growers and buyers as well as mechanisms to ensure workers are treated well on an ongoing basis. Recently, Gwen Cameron, co-owner of Rancho Durazno in Colorado heard about the program and presented it to her workers. She then invited representatives of the Fair Food Program to come talk to them and explain how it all worked. Her workers didn’t hesitate, after a unanimous vote the state of Colorado and Rancho Durazno farm is now on the list of participating locations.
Cameron told Nancy Lofholm at the Colorado Sun:
“It’s a good way to communicate our values to our customers,” Cameron said. “I think the general public has become more aware of and interested in the treatment of ag workers and the Fair Food Program made me realize we need to do a better job of sharing our story.”
As consumers become more aware of the issue of forced labor and labor exploitation in agriculture they are increasingly demanding a way to choose food that is exploitation free. The Fair Food Program provides just that. They have a list of 14 multibillion-dollar food retailers who have agreed to their Code of Conduct. The list includes some of the heavy hitters like Walmart, McDonald’s, Subway, Sodexo, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. The companies agree to buy certain types of produce only from growers that have agreed to Fair Foods rules. It is this type of cooperation between workers, farmers and buyers that enables consumers to choose products proven to come from a system treating workers well and eventually helping eliminate slavery in our food supply.
A wake-up call
Agricultural workers around the world have been undervalued for years, their human rights crushed in the drive for those living in wealthy countries to have access to more types of foods for less money. But the landscape may be changing.
“We need to treat our workers better and it’s high time we did so,” David Harold, co-owner of Tuxedo farm said. “This program helps us to cultivate a culture on the farm where we can have a meaningful conversation.”
Rancho Durazno hopes that by joining the Fair Food Program’s list of participants in the U.S., it will signal other Colorado growers to realize more human rights protections are needed beyond those included in the 2021 state law designed to rectify some of the abuses. Dan Waldvogle, director of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, is looking to the Fair Food Program to help guide his organization’s recommendations for crafting the next Farm Bill. Waldvogel said he views the Fair Food Program, other workers’ rights efforts and the 2021 legislation as “a wake-up call for our organization.”
By placing workers’ voices at the foundation of their operations, putting in place dispute mechanisms that are fair and accessible to all, and calling on growers and buyers to sign a legally binding agreement, the Fair Food Program is a great step forward towards the elimination of modern slavery on commercial farms. It is also a great model for how inter-organizational cooperation can lead to accurate supply-chain mapping. But the best way to gauge the success of this approach comes from the workers themselves.
As he waited at a health clinic at Rancho Durazno that Cameron brings to the farm for the workers, Navidad Yevismea said he recommends the Fair Food Program to other workers in the farm network around Palisade where he works.
“Honestly, I recommend this program because there are workers who don’t get treated as good as here,” he said. “Here, I am getting everything that is promised.”
In addition to programs like the Fair Food Program, strong laws are needed to hold businesses accountable for human rights and environmental abuses in their supply chains. We are calling on the U.S. to pass a strong mandatory due diligence law to help address human rights and environmental violations around the world and hold businesses accountable for failing to prevent modern slavery and human rights abuses in their supply chains.