Blog: How Worker-driven Social Responsibility is Ushering in a New Day of Human Rights in the Global Economy

Two inter-linked phenomena have primarily defined the modern global economy: the concentration of enormous market power into a few corporations, and the increasing reliance on fragmented and opaque supply chains. These phenomena combine with the modern corporation’s incentive to maximize profit with minimal constraints that frequently leads to a race to the bottom for human rights protections, especially in agriculture and other low-wage industries. But within this context, workers have forged a scalable solution to systemic rights abuses in global supply chains: Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR).

The promise of Worker-driven Social Responsibility – a model by which workers are able to define and enforce their own rights – is to modernize workers’ human rights by flipping market incentives and conditioning profits on respect for workers’ human rights.

Nowhere better embodies the dangers of the global economy and the redeeming power of WSR than the small agricultural community of Immokalee in Florida. Immokalee was once dubbed “ground zero for modern slavery” by federal prosecutors due to its long history of extreme exploitation of farmworkers that routinely rose to the level of slavery. Farmworkers, primarily from Mexico, Haiti, and Guatemala, came together in 1993 to form the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to call for dignified working conditions and fair wages. The CIW led general strikes, marches, and other protests aimed at the local agricultural industry. While this yielded some positive change, it was not enough to remedy and prevent the basic abusive conditions on the ground, ranging from sexual harassment and wage theft to forced labor. Over time, the CIW’s analysis evolved to expand its focus from the local agricultural industry to the broader food industry of which it is a subset, and where responsibility for the poverty and abuse of farmworkers lies in part, and the power to address those human rights violations resides. That evolution of analysis is what ultimately led to the launch of the Campaign for Fair Food in 2001 focusing on the large corporate buyers of the produce harvested by farmworkers.

More simply put, in the words of the rallying cry that went up from Immokalee in 2001 when the CIW launched the boycott that started it all: “Taco Bell makes farmworkers poor!”

After a sustained, decade-long campaign to pressure major food retailers, including Taco Bell, Burger King, and Trader Joe’s among others, the CIW secured a series of legally binding agreements with these buyers to (1) buy first from growers that abide by a human rights-based and worker-written Code of Conduct, and (2) shift purchases away from growers who don’t respect farmworkers’ human rights. In 2011, with the committed purchasing power of buyers and incentives for growers to participate, the CIW launched the Fair Food Program. The Fair Food Program combined legally-enforceable agreements with corporate buyers, transparency and cooperation from growers, worker-led education on rights in the workplace, a sophisticated complaint investigation and resolution process, and auditing by an independent and worker-selected monitor to establish a fully-fledged human rights program and the first-ever iteration of WSR.

On Fair Food Program (FFP) farms, workers are protected from forced labor and other abuses through several interlacing mechanisms designed to monitor and enforce the Program’s standards. These include: worker-to-worker education on their rights under the FFP’s code of conduct; a 24/7 complaint investigation and resolution process where workers can report violations free from the fear of retaliation; regular and substantial farm audits; and swift, market-enforced consequences for violations of workers’ human rights. If a zero-tolerance violation, such as forced labor, were to be found on an FFP participating farm, the grower would be automatically barred from selling its produce to Fair Food Participating Buyers. This creates a powerful market incentive that has effectively eliminated abuses on FFP farms, including modern slavery and other forms of extreme abuse. In the words of Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a farmworker and long-time CIW staff member, “If [growers] lose their status as an FFP farm, then they’re looking at millions of dollars in potential losses.” The FFP’s success is also measured in how swiftly it delivers justice to workers who report a problem. A full 65% of complaints registered within the FFP are resolved within 2 weeks, and 82% are resolved within one month.

During an audit, one farmworker spoke of the transformative impact the FFP has had on the farms on which they work:

“The fields have changed – now, we have better wages and better treatment for everyone. Before, there was nothing like that. Before, I would be working under the sun, working hard, and I would want to stop for water. The boss would stop me, and I would say, I need water. He would say, there’s the ditch over there, it’s got some water. There were no water bottles. We were exhausted, we needed water. There were no toilets. Before, if you spoke out, you would be fired. Tomorrow, don’t come, there’s no work for you. But now that we are united, we have strength. We are taking steps forward, and we cannot go back. We have to go forward. We are building a road forward, and we will never go back.”

With over a decade of proven success, the FFP has been widely lauded. From the United Nations, White House, and US Department of Agriculture to the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post, the Fair Food Program is heralded as the answer to myriad vexing questions of how to guarantee workers’ basic human rights in global supply chains. Those same fields in Immokalee once dubbed ‘ground zero’ for modern slavery, are now known as the “best work environment in U.S. agriculture.”

Beyond the reach of the Program’s gold standard protections, however, unethical farm bosses on non-participating farms are free to operate with little or no fear of being held accountable for their actions thanks to both a longstanding lack of federal and state resources for effective labor law enforcement and the continued, stubborn resistance of corporations unwilling to implement WSR in their supply chains. This is why the CIW has focused its efforts on expanding the Fair Food Program as far and wide as possible through pressuring more corporate buyers to sign on, and by partnering with governments and other worker organizations to expand the FFP into more farms across the US and the rest of the world. Currently, the FFP protects tens of thousands of workers in 10 states and three countries (the US, Chile, and South Africa) harvesting over a dozen crops, and is poised to more than double the number of state expand in the near-future thanks to a USDA grant program that conditions higher grant awards on top tier worker protections, like participation in a WSR program.

More broadly, the success of the FFP has informed and inspired the replication of this model to industries across the globe. In 2013, the CIW consulted with organizations representing garment workers in Bangladesh on how they can secure their safety and dignity in the wake of the disastrous Rana Plaza collapse, which killed over 1,100 workers. This collaboration helped lead to the creation of the first WSR program in garments with the Bangladesh Accord, which has since expanded to become the International Accord after garment workers in Pakistan adapted the WSR model for their own national context and merged efforts with Bangladesh’s garment workers. The International Accord protects over 3 million garment workers. Garment workers from Lesotho also visited Immokalee to learn how to successfully adapt the WSR model to protect them against sexual harassment and misconduct, leading to the successful launch of a WSR program. Dairy workers in Vermont collaborated over the course of several years with the CIW to launch their own WSR program called Milk with Dignity, based closely on the Fair Food Program. In 2024 migrant fishers in the UK announced the launch their own WSR pilot program tailored to their needs and in partnership with the CIW, who is also now working with Spanish worker unions to explore the development of a WSR program in Spain’s agricultural industry. Workers in construction and poultry in the US are also actively campaigning to establish WSR in their industries. In short, Worker-driven Social Responsibility is rapidly becoming the go-to tool for workers in search of dignity and whose lives and livelihoods depend on the actions of massive corporations at the top of supply chains.

In ICAR’s latest end-of-year report, the authors state: “Full corporate accountability requires a system that effectively prevents abuses, holds businesses liable for abuses, and provides remedy to those impacted by those abuses. This system must also be transparent, accessible, and center the needs and agency of workers and those communities most impacted by corporate abuse.”

Unfortunately, the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Multi-Stakeholder Initiative (MSI) models that have been the dominant paradigm for corporate accountability for several decades have failed, spectacularly, to prevent abuses in corporate supply chains, ranging from modern day slavery and systematic wage theft to building collapses and factory fires. Because they rely on a thin veil of ‘ethics certification’ through annual or bi-annual audits without the mechanisms or power to achieve real time, effective enforcement of workers’ rights or protect against retaliation, CSR and MSI models often result in ‘fairwashing’ that covers up labor abuses while undermining legitimate labor organizing and worker protection programs in corporate supply chains.

The recent certification of a farm by Fair Trade USA and the Ethical Food Initiative provides a cautionary tale of how the voluntary labor standards of the CSR and MSI model fails to protect workers. Farmworkers from Rancho Nuevo Produce, a berry and tomato plantation supplying produce to food retailers in the US, described the farm as a place “where slavery exists,” and reported “fearing retaliation for demanding their rights,” and being “forced to work overtime under duress without overtime pay.” Even though CSR and MSI schemes have been roundly discredited by experts and academics, they continue to be relied upon by corporations. This presents a significant obstacle to the adoption of the WSR models, with verifiable and rigorous enforcement mechanisms, which represents a matter of life and death for millions of low-wage workers across the globe.

Workers everywhere deserve safety, dignity, and a fair wage: with the emergence of WSR, they now have a novel tool to empower themselves to become the frontline monitors of their own rights, and to usher in a new day of real, measurable human rights enforcement in the global economy.


Written by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

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