MacArthur “genius” Greg Asbed is helping the world’s most vulnerable workers get a raise

ByJames Dennin

It started with tomatoes. In the early ’90s, community organizer Greg Asbed began working with pickers in Florida, which supplies about 90% of U.S. tomatoes during the winter — and where working conditions were so bad, prosecutors brought multiple cases against the industry for conditions of “modern slavery” according to the the New York Times.

Wage theft was prevalent, as were incidents of sexual harassment or assault. Many of the pickers were migrants with little recourse to report their employers or form a recognized union. Many of them didn’t speak English, making them susceptible to intimidation.

So in 1993, Asbed and other organizers started the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to press growers into providing better wages and working conditions. The group started with community strikes to push for better pay and working conditions. But that approach was hamstrung, Asbed said in a phone interview with Mic.

The workers were already poor, Asbed explained, and couldn’t strike for very long. They needed to develop an alternative way to get the workers to the table.

Eventually, Asbed and his colleagues developed what’s now called the Fair Food Program: Based on legally binding agreements signed by the country’s largest purchasers — firms like Walmart and McDonald’s — to buy tomatoes from only those businesses that meet program standards. Galvanizing consumers to pressure brands into signing the agreements is difficult, he said, but once firms sign, the results are clear: Workers within the program averaged weekly pay raises between 20% and 35%, and labor abuses have been all but eliminated.

Since its adoption, Asbed’s model has been replicated across the world. Vermont dairy farmers recently reached a similar agreement with Ben and Jerry’s. And perhaps most notably, many elements of Asbed’s model were later incorporated into the Bangladesh Accord, an agreement to improve health and safety conditions after a factory collapse in 2013 killed more than 1,100 garment workers.

For his achievements, Asbed received a $625,000 so-called “genius” grant this week from the MacArthur Foundation, which provides funds to people engaged in promising work that furthers “a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” In a phone interview with Mic, Asbed discussed his organization’s history, how his model has been scaled successfully and what’s needed to empower society’s most vulnerable workers to bargain for a better life.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Mic: How does worker-driven social responsibility work, and how does it relate to the Fair Food Program?

Greg Asbed: Worker-driven social responsibility is a new paradigm for protecting workers’ human rights in corporate supply chains. There are millions of workers around the globe who assemble our clothing, put together our electronics, pick our food and fish for our seafood who face pretty horrific working conditions that include systemic wage theft, endemic sexual harassment and assault, up to and including instances of modern day slavery.

So this [previous] system that’s been in place ... for the past 30 or so years has been called corporate social responsibility. Corporate social responsibility is a set of standards that the corporation will create that doesn’t [really get an idea at all] of what workers are facing, and it’s gamed on a regular basis.

Worker-driven social responsibility is sort of the 180-degree opposite. Instead of being controlled and defined by corporations, it’s driven by the workers themselves who know exactly the set of abuses they face at work. It’s not just “obey the law,” which is where everything starts, it’s the specific forms of exploitation that occur in different jobs. Instead of simply relying on corporate third-party auditing firms, it is monitored by workers themselves who learn about their rights in worker-to-worker education.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

How is the system different from existing worker organizations, like unions?

GA: It started back in 1993, with workers in Immokalee coming together to study their lives. For nearly a decade, it was an organization that organized community-wide strikes. There were three of them, [in] 1995, 1997 and 1999.

Farm workers are excluded from the National Labor Review Board, so basically they have one tool immediately available to them, which is to withhold their labor. After the strikes, we ran into several limitations of that tool. When you’re extremely poor to begin with, your freedom to withhold your labor and exercise that power is very limited.

Farm workers were caught in this bind where they didn’t have access to the traditional forms of organizing, they couldn’t form a labor union and they were too poor to withhold their labor and force their way to the table. So after nearly a decade of struggle, the workers of the CIW decided there had to be some power they could access that could get them to the table.

When they analyzed the food industry anew, they saw the powers that shaped their lives were not immediately in Immokalee, they were in major food corporations that have the volume and the purchasing power to drive prices down for their suppliers and therefore drive wages down for workers, and that was the birth of [the CIW’s] Campaign for Fair Food.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

What was so special about Immokalee?

GA: Immokalee was a deeply atomized, divided town in which the conditions that individual workers faced were pretty much unimaginable to most Americans.

Wage theft was widespread and that was probably the best of things. Sexual harassment and sexual assault were extremely common. Modern-day slavery was extremely prevalent: Florida was called ground zero for modern-day slavery at the time, for how prevalent it was.

Within the protection of the FFP, we’ve been able to put a stop to sexual harassment, sexual assault and modern-day slavery, and nearly eliminate the less violent but no less troublesome violations like wage theft.

There’s a system in place that cannot only detect violations, but there are also consequences that are swift and clear. In the end, it’s actually a level of prevention, which is infinitely preferable to a world where there are victims whose lives you have to try and help put back together after the fact.

How does the enforcement mechanism work, exactly? And how do you empower immigrant workers to report their bosses?

GA: Fear of retaliation was ever-present in Immokalee before the Fair Food Program, so that was something that was in play for workers ... who faced a decision of, “Should I seek justice, or keep my head down and keep it on my body?”

With the FFP, workers define the code of conduct, and one of the things that was absolutely essential was that retaliation be a violation — in and of itself.

There were cases in the early days ... and the program was able to get those fixed in a very public way. That’s one of the things that happens with certain forms of violations in the FFP: People are fired, the explanation for why is made public to the whole workforce and the company must reconfirm its commitment to the program.

Coalition for Immokalee Workers

What are other places or industries that have adopted your model?

GA: The same principles were built into the Bangladesh Accord. You probably remember the factory fires and the factory collapse a few years ago that were prominent in the news. The attention that those two tragedies sparked led to brands being more willing to work with workers’ organizations to develop binding legal agreements like the FFP. Brands would help fund improvements, but also would only buy from factories that were found to be in compliance with the health and safety codes.

Just last week, workers in the dairy industry and the Organization of Migrant Justice in Vermont signed an agreement with Ben and Jerry’s to implement the Milk with Dignity Program, which is based explicitly on the FFP.

That’s an entirely different industry, but the principles will work there as well. The scalability and replicability of the program are very clear at this point.

Can workers put this into practice in their own workplaces?

GA: It’s usually through a common cause between consumers and workers. You need the brand or brands that buy and sell the product that you’re making at work. So if it’s a tomato that you’re picking, you go to places like Taco Bell or McDonald’s or Whole Foods; you need those brands to come on board and lend you their purchasing power. Brands aren’t inclined to enter into these kinds of agreements. If they were, we wouldn’t have to protest.

We would much prefer to dedicate every ounce of energy and resources we have to building our program than to being in the streets, but we have to because brands are not inclined to enter those agreements without pressure.

In any other industry, workers can educate consumers about conditions in their workplace [and] organize consumers to pressure the brands to support human rights in an enforceable way. The road is now made, and it works.

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