What could Hollywood’s brightest stars learn from farmworkers in Florida’s tomato fields? When it comes to creating a workplace where women are empowered to report sexual harassment—and receive justice rather than retaliation when they do so—the farmworkers of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) offer a proven model. That the group created this solution in a town known less than a decade ago as “ground zero for modern slavery” makes it all the more remarkable and promising for other industries.
Agriculture is a notoriously dangerous industry for women. Eighty percent of women farmworkers report having experienced some form of sexual violence on the job. The CIW is addressing this crisis through its Fair Food Program (FFP), which puts market pressure on tomato growers to enforce a strict code of conduct in their fields. The code, which was developed by workers themselves, sets various human-rights standards, one of which is zero tolerance for sexual assault. (It mandates immediate firing for unwanted “physical touching.”) If violations of the code go unaddressed, the result is severe economic consequences for the grower.
To enforce the code, which covers more than 90 percent of Florida’s $600 million tomato industry, the CIW has established legally binding agreements with 14 of the world’s largest retail food corporations that purchase tomatoes—including WalMart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and all major fast-food companies, with the exception of Wendy’s. These corporations promise to cut off purchases from farms that are out of compliance with the code. Now tomato growers know if they don’t crack down on abuses in their fields, they can’t sell their produce to these major buyers. These agreements didn’t come easily: CIW educated consumers about the plight of farmworkers via hunger strikes, marches, and direct action. It took intense public pressure to get most of the corporate retailers to sign on.
Nely Rodriguez, a CIW staff member originally from Mexico, says it’s the economic consequences that make all the difference. “We’ve shown how the power of the market can be used to improve the conditions in the field,” she says. Under the FFP, workers are able to monitor their own workplaces for violations of the code, and can lodge complaints via a trilingual 24-hour hotline operated by an independent monitoring organization, which does annual announced and unannounced audits on every participating farm and investigates all complaints. (During those audits, they speak to at least 50 percent of the workforce, including workers, crewleaders, and supervisors.) In contrast to other workplace hotlines that might be contracted out, or answered by a machine or a corporate HR representative, CIW’s always has an expert on-call who understands the power dynamics of the tomato industry. Headed by a retired New York State Supreme Court justice, the monitoring organization also audits the payroll, looking for minimum-wage violations and enforcing the penny-per-pound tomato surcharge that buyers pay to administer the program.