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Ms. Solis Goes to Immokalee | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Ms. Solis Goes to Immokalee

In her very first speech as Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis spoke about the town of Immokalee, its importance in the fight for workers' rights, and her intention to visit.

Last week she made good on that promise.

The Secretary toured the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' (CIW) Modern-Day Slavery Museum, spoke with its members through the coalition's low-power community radio station, and met privately with CIW staff as well.

It was clear to CIW members that this wasn't just some photo op by a politico.

"For the first time, we feel we have a real ally at the Labor Department," said CIW staff member Greg Asbed. "And for us, for the town of Immokalee, that's just never been the case. Her commitment is real, and the power she has is real too. And we just hope that we have many years to come of working together."

That collaborative work begins now with the Department of Labor's new "Podemos Ayudar (We Can Help)" campaign. Solis has added 250 investigators to its wage and hour division--which had been decimated along with the rest of the Department under the Bush Administration--and the new campaign encourages workers regardless of immigration status to report violations so that labor laws can be enforced.

"For years we've been doing wage-theft cases where people don't get paid for a day, a week, or a month," said Asbed. "One person or 100 people--people who walk in our office, or members who call in from Georgia or elsewhere. We call the employer, tell them their rights, what the laws are. And we try to convince them to do the right thing. In the majority of cases they do. But there is a significant minority who don't. In the past we've referred these matters to the states' labor agencies or the federal Department of Labor, with mixed results, to say the least. But Secretary Solis is making it very clear that she wants her investigators to work with us--to be present down here. If we have cases that have hit a wall, she wants us to take them to the investigators. And we're going to do that."

This commitment to enforcement is critical and a major step in the right direction. But its impact is also limited. Enforcing standards in the agricultural fields is extremely difficult. There is a geographic challenge because the workplace is spread over thousands of acres across the entire state of Florida. There is a demographic challenge because of an unstable workforce with perhaps the highest turnover of any industry--investigations require follow-up with workers. And there is a cultural challenge in an industry where worker exploitation is the norm rather than the exception.

No matter how many resources are devoted to enforcement by the Department of Labor, it will never be sufficient to achieve the level of voluntary compliance that is needed in the agriculture industry. In most industries, there is sufficient voluntary compliance with basic labor laws such as the minimum wage so that the bad actors stand out. But in the fields, the prevailing norm is so bad that voluntary compliance doesn’t exist, and the worst violations remain hidden in the weeds.

That's why CIW’s campaign to harness the power of the largest buyers of US produce--by brokering agreements that demand higher labor standards and create market consequences for any major violations by growers--is so key in the fight to raise wages and improve working conditions. A recent example was the agreement signed between CIW, the world’s largest food service company, Compass Group, and the third largest grower in Florida, East Coast Growers and Packers. It included a pay raise that will help lift farmworkers out of poverty and a code of conduct that protects workers and requires third party auditing for full transparency. Secretary Solis attended the press conference announcing that historic agreement in Washington, DC.

That preventative market-based approach was another focus of the talks between Solis and CIW--how the Administration can encourage the largest buyers of US produce to take real, meaningful, and verifiable steps towards supply-chain accountability.

"It's not immediately obvious how that happens, because it’s not something that past Administrations have ever done," said Asbed. "But the results have never been good for past Administrations either. So the need to think of new approaches is urgent, and we felt like the Secretary shared that feeling of urgency."

Whatever next steps the Administration does take in challenging the agriculture industry on fair food, Secretary Solis has already sent a strong signal--from her very first speech through this trip to Immokalee.

"The growers down here now know--without a doubt--that the Department of Labor is serious and paying attention to the fight for labor rights in Florida," said Asbed.

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