Interfaith Action educates and animates people of faith to partner with the CIW in its efforts to improve wages in the fields, and put an end to modern-day slavery in the agricultural industry.




 

Letter of Conscience to Secretary Vilsack

 

On this 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation we remember our nation’s courageous ancestors who denounced slavery, resisted its practices and devoted themselves to creating structures of commerce that upheld the human rights and dignity of all people. Advances that had been unimaginable became possible because of the creativity and perseverance of slaves, abolitionists and key government leaders. The work of freedom takes all of us; and it is ongoing.

Though enormous strides were made, the scourge of slavery has persisted, despite its illegality, in different forms, including in the agricultural fields of the United States today. Since 1997, Florida agriculture itself has seen nine prosecutions of cases of forced labor, involving over 1,200 people.

Modern-day slavery in Florida agriculture cannot be understood in a vacuum. It is not separate from the past, rather its roots extend deep into the state’s history of farmworker poverty and powerlessness.

But a new day has dawned in the Florida fields, due to the unstinting work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and its allies from the faith, student, human rights, and sustainable food communities. Together, we have given birth to a comprehensive and verifiable new model of sustainable agriculture: the Fair Food Program.

Through this program, farmworkers, over ninety percent of Florida tomato growers, and eleven of the nation’s largest corporate buyers have come together to address modern slavery and eliminate the conditions in which it flourishes. Advances in wages and working conditions are rigorously monitored by the Fair Food Standards Council and the result has been nothing short of a sea-change in the industry.

For many people of faith, the story of liberation found in Exodus is foundational to our commitment to social justice. Just as God brought the Jewish people from slavery to freedom, we have dedicated ourselves over many years to continuing the work of freedom by changing the Florida agricultural industry through the Fair Food Program until it more closely upholds the dignity and rights God intends for all people.

In November, the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships lifted up the Fair Food Program as a powerful model for addressing human trafficking here in the US. Indeed, you have commended the Fair Food Program and has held it out as a model. Now is the time for the USDA to embrace this model and purchase tomatoes for school lunches and market stabilization through the Fair Food Program. As we celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, it is fitting to ask ourselves if we, 150 years ago, would have had the courage to embrace abolition. The US Department of Agriculture is a bellwether buyer, and as an agency of the federal government its purchasing practices should embody the highest standards for human rights. For the work of freedom takes all of us; and it is ongoing.

Therefore, we the undersigned, as people of faith, call upon the United States Department of Agriculture to support the highest standards for addressing modern slavery and ending the conditions in which it flourishes through participating in the Fair Food Program by:

a. paying at least an additional, net penny-per-pound premium for USDA tomatoes, with Florida growers passing on this increase to farmworkers in their paychecks and
b. purchasing only from those Florida tomato growers that uphold the Fair Food Code of Conduct.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Sincerely,

The Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director, T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America)

Gary Haugen, President and CEO, International Justice Mission

The Rev. David Beckmann, President, Bread for the World

Jim Wallis, President and CEO, Sojourners

Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and
Canada

Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, Executive Minister, Justice and Witness Ministries, United Church of Christ

James E. Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church

Sr. Patricia Chappell, SNDdeN, Executive Director of Pax Christi USA

Simone Campbell, SSS, Executive Director, NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby

Rabbi Joshua Lesser, Chair of the Tikkun Olam Commission, Jewish Reconstructionist Movement

Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, National Director of Interfaith & Community Alliances, Islamic Society of North America

Rev. Craig C. Roshaven, Witness Ministries Director, Unitarian Universalist Association

Virginia Nesmith, Executive Director, National Farm Worker Ministry

Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Institute Justice Team
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 Background Material

Below you will find information on the Fair Food Program, why and how it was developed and the religious support behind it.  To learn more about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers visit their website: www.ciw-online.org. 

For an excellent summary of the FFP and its impact, read the Washington Post opinion piece, “Fair Food Program Helps End Use of Slavery in the Tomato Fields” by Holly Burkhalter of International Justice Mission. 

And visit the following websites that chronicle religious support for and provide resources on the Campaign for Fair Food:

   Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)   www.presbyterianmission.org/fairfood
   T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America)  http://www.truah.org/
   International Justice Mission  http://www.ijm.org/recipe-for-change
   Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida  www.interfaithact.org  

Frequently Asked Questions
About the Fair Food Program and its Accomplishments

What are the conditions we are trying to change in the Florida tomato fields?

Tomato pickers harvesting in Florida toil long days in pesticide laden fields with no right to overtime pay, no health insurance, no sick leave, no paid vacation, and no right to organize to improve these conditions. In the most extreme conditions, farmworkers are held against their well and forced to work for little or no pay, facing conditions that meet the stringent legal standards for prosecution under modern-day slavery statutes. Federal Civil Rights officials have prosecuted nine slavery operations involving over 1,200 workers in Florida’s fields since 1997, prompting one federal prosecutor to call Florida "ground zero for modern-day slavery."  [Read more about conditions

Why is this program focused on the Florida tomato industry?

The state of Florida annual tomato crop is valued at $500 million to $700 million and supplies 90% of the nation’s domestically grown tomatoes during the winter months [between October – May] (Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, March 2009).

Who are the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)?

The CIW is a community-based organization of approximately 5,000 mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida.  The CIW has won numerous commendations from the federal government and civil society for its ground-breaking work to ensure human rights for farmworkers through the Fair Food Program.

What is the Fair Food Program?

Fair Food Program is a unique farmworker- and consumer-driven initiative consisting of a:

  • Wage increase supported by a price premium of at least a net penny-per-pound paid by corporate purchasers of Florida tomatoes;
  • Human-rights-based Code of Conduct, applicable throughout the Florida tomato industry.

The price premium and the Code of Conduct, which were developed by tomato workers, growers, and corporate buyers, form the foundation for a new model of social accountability.  The Code of Conduct commits food buyers to suspending purchases from any grower found to have used forced labor or to have other committed other serious offenses. 

The Fair Food Program consists of seven major elements:

§  A pay increase for farmworkers supported by the price premium Participating Buyers pay for their tomatoes (at least a net penny per pound);

§  Compliance with the Fair Food Code of Conduct, including zero tolerance for forced labor and systemic child labor;

§  Worker-to-worker education sessions conducted by the CIW, on the farms and on company time to insure workers understand their new rights and responsibilities;

§  A worker-triggered complaint resolution mechanism leading to complaint investigation, corrective action plans, and, if necessary, suspension of a farm’s Participating Grower status, and thereby its ability to sell to Participating Buyers;

§   A system of Health and Safety committees on every farm to give workers a structured voice in the shape of their work environment;

§   Specific and concrete changes in harvesting operations to improve workers’ wages and working conditions, including an end to the age-old practice of forced overfilling of picking buckets (a practice which effectively denied workers pay for up to 10% of the tomatoes harvested), shade in the fields, and time clocks to record and count all compensable hours accurately;

§   Ongoing auditing of the farms to insure compliance with each element of the FFP through the Fair Food Standards Council. 

Which food buyers and tomato growers currently participate in the Fair Food Program?

Currently 11 corporate buyers participate in the Fair Food Program.  In fast-food, Yum!/Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and Chipotle Mexican Grill.  In foodservice:  Aramark, Sodexo, Bon Appétit and Compass Group.  In grocery:  Whole Foods Market and just this past February, Trader Joe’s.   

The Fair Food Program currently covers over 90 percent of Florida tomato production [current list of participating growers]. 

Which farmworkers are covered by the Fair Food Program?

The Fair Food Program covers all farmworkers harvesting tomatoes for participating Florida growers, whether or not they are members of the CIW.  These growers employ approximately 30,000 workers at any given moment during the season and, due to high turnover, between 80,000 and 100,000 workers over the course of a season.

How is the Fair Food Program monitored?

The Fair Food Standards Council monitors and provides technical assistance in the implementation of the program.  The FFSC is a separate not-for-profit organization whose sole function is oversight of the Program.  The FFSC is responsible for both financial and systems audits of participating farms and retailers, for staffing a 24-hour toll-free complaint line, for investigating and resolving complaints that arise, and for otherwise helping growers and corporate buyers comply with the requirements of the Program.  Operating out of its headquarters in Sarasota, the FFSC covers tomato farms throughout the State of Florida.   

How did the Fair Food Program come about?

The Fair Food Program is a comprehensive, verifiable and sustainable program that has grown out of the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food, a more than decade-long, joint effort between farmworkers who harvest tomatoes and the consumers who purchase and eat those tomatoes to end the poverty and vulnerability of farmworkers.   By leveraging the unique power of each actor in the tomato supply chain, the Fair Food Program has planted the seeds of a Florida tomato industry that is competitive and accountable, productive and fair.  

What are people of faith and the CIW asking of food buyers, including the USDA?

The Campaign for Fair Food calls on food buyers to (a) pay at least an additional, net penny-per-pound premium which their suppliers pass on to farmworkers in their paychecks and  (b) purchase only from those Florida tomato growers that uphold the Fair Food Code of Conduct. 

Why is the campaign focused on food buyers rather than growers?

Corporate buyers in the restaurant, food service, and grocery industries purchase a tremendous volume of tomatoes and use that volume to leverage the lowest possible prices from their suppliers, Florida tomato growers.  The US government’s standard practice is to similarly seek the lowest, competitive pricing.  Meanwhile growers face rising prices for other inputs like land, machinery and pesticides. So growers control their expenses in the one place they can: the cost of labor. Oxfam America explained it this way: "Squeezed by the buyers of their produce, growers pass on the costs and risks imposed on them to those on the lowest rung of the supply chain: the farmworkers they employ".[i]   This is why farmworker wages have been stagnant for more than 30 years.  The Campaign takes the enormous purchasing power that corporations have and redirects it from the immoral ends of farmworker poverty and vulnerability toward the moral ends of improving farmworker wages and ending the vulnerability in which abuses take root and grow. 

Why is the participation of the USDA so important?

Farmworkers harvesting tomatoes only receive the wage increase of at least a net penny per pound when they are harvesting for the eleven participating corporations.  So, when farmworkers are harvesting for Trader Joe’s they receive 77-82 cents for every thirty-two pound bucket whereas when they are harvesting for the USDA’s school lunch or market stabilization programs, they receive only 45-50 cents a bucket.

Further participating food buyers use their power both as a stick and carrot.  If a grower is out of compliance with the fair food standards, corporations suspend purchasing from that grower.  Conversely, corporations pledge only to purchase from Florida growers that are upholding the fair food standards, ensuring business for a sustainable and fair Florida tomato industry.

Finally, the USDA is an agency of the federal government.  Its practices impact and influence the practices of other buyers in the industry.  It is reasonable to ask that our federal government, which has proclaimed its commitment to eradicating modern slavery in corporate supply chains, also eradicate slavery in its own supply chains.  The Fair Food Program is a proven program that has already been lauded by US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack and celebrated at a Seder hosted by the USDA.  It is both appropriate and possible for the USDA to commit to the Fair Food Program for its own tomato purchases.

What religious groups currently support the Campaign for Fair Food and the Fair Food Program?

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Pax Christi USA, International Justice Mission, T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America), and many other faith bodies are working work side-by-side with the CIW farmworkers toward a more sustainable and just food system.  [See more faith supporters]


[i] Like Machines in the Fields, Oxfam America, 2004, p. 36.