Today Walmart, the largest grocery retailer in the United States, joined the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, forever changing the landscape of social responsibility in the food industry. In a signing ceremony in the fields of Lippman Produce farm, where the CIW’s struggle for rights began twenty years ago, Walmart representatives and leaders from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers sent an unmistakable message: human rights will be the new norm in US agriculture.
Using its unparalleled purchasing power and reach, Walmart will work together with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to extend the Fair Food Program to tomato fields beyond the state of Florida and, over time, to other crops as well.
Walmart’s participation in the Fair Food Program represents an unprecedented strengthening and expansion of a collaboration that has already proven its ability to transform Florida’s 650 million dollar tomato industry, winning increased wages, rights in the workplace and freedom from forced labor, sexual harassment and violence in the fields for tens of thousands of farmworkers. The Program has been lauded by human rights groups, representatives of the United Nations, and the White House for its innovation, impact and sustainability.
With Walmart signing on, now twelve food companies in supermarket, fast-food, and foodservice, are working collaboratively with the CIW through the Fair Food Program. The Fair Food Program requires participating food buyers to pay an additional penny per pound premium to increase workers’ wages and to purchase only from those growers that uphold the Fair Food Code of Conduct.
The results of the Fair Food Program are indisputable, offering significant lessons in best practices for combatting seemingly intractable and severe abuses such as modern slavery. In Florida agriculture alone, the US Department of Justice has prosecuted nine cases of modern slavery, involving over 1,200 workers. But while a decade ago one federal prosecutor described the Immokalee region as “ground zero for modern-slavery,” today, because of the Fair Food Program, the number of cases is “zero.” Such a dramatic turnabout underscores the effectiveness of the CIW’s approach of ensuring swift market consequences for growers who turn a blind eye to extreme abuses and to the need to eliminate the conditions of poverty and vulnerability in which severe abuses such as slavery take root
The Program not only includes a Code of Conduct which prohibits, among other things, forced labor, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and wage theft, but also obligates every grower to host “on the clock and on the farm” worker-to-worker know your rights sessions at least twice a season. Importantly, workers have the ability to confidentially report abuses without fear of retaliation. The combination of education and confidential reporting transforms the approximately 60,000 tomato harvesters into empowered monitors, knowledgeable about and able to enforce their own rights. And finally, the penny per pound premium provides substantive economic benefit for workers who toil at the poverty level. The Fair Food Program is the first of its kind, giving birth to what has been called “worker-led social responsibility.”
The Fair Food Standards Council is the independent monitor responsible for monitoring participating buyers’ payments of the penny premium, auditing growers compliance with the Fair Food Code of Conduct and adjudicating reports of violations.
The Council reports that since November, 2011:
- Workers have brought forth 304 complaints under Program
- Council auditors have conducted nearly 60 comprehensive audits, visited 45 farm locations, and interviewed 4,000 workers to assess participating Growers’ compliance with the Code;
- The CIW has conducted 161 worker-to-worker education sessions, attended by well over 14,000 workers; and
- Participating Buyers have paid more than $11 million in Fair Food Premiums to improve workers’ wages.
Walmart has committed to every aspect of this program.
Walmart is the largest grocery retailer to join the program, as it generates 51% of its $258 billion from its grocery business. It now joins fellow grocers Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in the most comprehensive, verifiable, and sustainable program of corporate accountability created to date.
Nonetheless supermarket giants Publix, Kroger and Ahold have thus far refused to embrace the Fair Food Program. Meanwhile the veritable earthquake of Walmart’s joining is shaking an industry that, for too long, has done business “no questions asked.” So our question to these supermarket corporations is this: if Walmart can do it, why not you?