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Effort to protect farmworkers from sexual assault gaining momentum

A Florida-based program that could bring protection for laborers seeks to expand nationally

Isabel, 30, has been working on Florida tomato farms for many years since she arrived from Guatemala. Her experience in the sun-soaked fields has brought a steady paycheck, but she has also seen co-workers experience sexual abuse and sexual violence.

“Before, we would hear about a contractor or supervisor who would take women to a private place, to the edge of the field, and we understood that sexual assault is what was happening,” she said. “Now, we aren’t hearing these stories in the same way we used to.”

Isabel credits a new program specific to Florida tomato farms for the decline in such incidents, but the rate of sexual assault and exploitation in the agriculture sector remains a significant concern for many advocates around the country.

“There’s a long way to go,” said Jesus Lopez, a community advocate at California Rural Legal Assistance. “I still see a lot of businesses and community members who are not addressing this problem.”

Farmworkers and many U.S. businesses are sparring over how to systemically address sexual abuse and other issues workers on farms around the country have raised — a conflict dating back to the 1960s that was portrayed in a recently released biopic about the iconic farmworkers’ rights advocate Cesar Chavez. Meanwhile, several corporations — including Walmart, the largest and perhaps most controversial U.S. retailer — are signing on to the Fair Food Program, a first-of-its-kind code of conduct developed by Florida farmworker advocates in 2011 to protect the state’s tomato-farm workers from sexual assault.

While litigation continues to be a way for many workers to stand up for themselves against employer misconduct, the Fair Food Program in Florida is an example of how nonlitigious workers’ rights initiatives can, according to advocates, systemically change conditions for farmworkers. And as the current era of campaigns to improve conditions across many low-wage sectors reveals persistent tension between workers and business, advocates note that the Fair Food Program is a workers’ rights initiative that is succeeding primarily through winning the support of business.

Advocacy groups, such as Human Rights Watch, say many of the hundreds of thousands of female agricultural workers in the U.S. are vulnerable to sexual assault while working in the fields. Nearly 200 complaints by female farmworkers have been made to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) over the past 15 years. Legal advocacy groups such as California Rural Legal Assistance have also represented workers in individual cases. But Human Rights Watch also notes that because many women are too afraid to speak out, actual numbers of assaults in the fields are hard to ascertain. 

A new approach

The Fair Food Code of Conduct aims to address the issue of sexual assault, as well as wage issues, in the fields. It states that growers must agree to “take all necessary steps to avoid endangering the safety of employees,” and violations of this code include sexual harassment.

Participating tomato buyers agree to pay an extra penny per pound of tomatoes purchased, and those funds are used to increase worker wages.

Farmwork is known for low wages. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, female crop workers earn $11,250 per year — below poverty level — and male crop workers earn $16,250. Sexual assault is reported at higher rates in some low-wage positions, such as farm and restaurant work. 

According to the Coalition of Imokalee Workers (CIW) — tomato-farm worker advocates who helped launch the Fair Food Program — theirs is the only such program in the country. CIW worker-advocates educate Florida’s mostly Haitian, Mexican and Guatemalan tomato-farm workers about their rights and protections per the Fair Food Code of Conduct.

The Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC), which hires 10 professional monitors to conduct announced and unannounced audits of the state’s tomato farms, monitors compliance with the Fair Food Program; audits involve intensive worker interviews. Auditors assess whether a company has systems in place that can comply with the code of conduct, and whether they are being implemented at field level. If violations are found, tomato growers are given an opportunity to correct violations.

They can be suspended from the program for failure to resolve the violations, said Laura Safer Espinoza, a former New York State Supreme Court judge who is now director of the FFSC.

Three Florida tomato growers are currently suspended for failure to abide with the code of conduct; a fourth was previously suspended and later restored to good standing upon demonstrating compliance with the code.

“There is a powerful market consequence that gives this program teeth,” Espinoza said. “It is a privilege to be involved in a program that goes beyond the legal system in terms of its capacity for transformational change.”

‘Compelled to act’

One of the earliest corporations to sign on to the Fair Food Program was Compass Group USA, a contract food-services provider with offices throughout the United States. Compass Group USA actually began participating in the program in 2009, before its official launch.

“Anyone who saw the conditions and took time to understand the issue would be compelled to act,” said Cheryl Queen, vice president of corporate communications for Compass.

By and large, farm labor contractors — the “middlemen” who hire farm laborers for vegetable growers — are identified as perpetrators of the abuse, according to Espinoza.

“Farm labor contracting has a troubled history,” she said. “There have been cases of forced labor, sexual violence. It’s a very powerful position in relation to the workers. It normally involves recruitment, hiring, transportation and a lot of power over workers’ lives.”

An objective of the Fair Food Program, advocates say, is to develop a nonlitigious program that can prevent worker abuse and change conditions on a broader scale.

“Filing a complaint with the EEOC is a long and arduous process,” said Julia Perkins of the CIW. “The Fair Food Program leads to much more immediate responses. It yields investigations when necessary. And if there’s someone who is harassing women in the fields, then they are removed.”

A Supreme Court ruling last year could make it harder for employees to sue supervisors who create hostile work environments. The court’s decision in Vance v. Ball State University essentially narrowed what it means to be a “supervisor,” absolving the employer from liability beyond a very low negligence standard. The decision could have implications for farmworkers who allege abuse by farm labor contractors.

Some advocates believe the Fair Food Program is a strong start, though culture change in the farmwork sector will take time.

“I think the Fair Food Program helps a lot in Florida,” Lopez of California Rural Legal Assistance said, “but that’s not the end of it.” 

Walmart joins in

However, earlier this year, the retail giant Walmart announced its decision to join the Fair Food Program, joining several major fast-food chains and grocers, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. The Fair Food Program officially began in January 2011, after 90 percent of Florida tomato growers signed on to the program in November 2010. Walmart’s participation means the company is agreeing to exclusively purchase tomatoes from growers who abide by the program’s code of conduct. As of this fall, all Walmart suppliers throughout the country must be in compliance with the code. Walmart’s participation also means the Fair Food Program could expand beyond just tomato crops, CIW advocates said.

News of the retail giant’s decision to participate in the Fair Food Program was met with insistence from other workers’ rights groups that the retailer still has far to go in improving its own working conditions. For decades Walmart has faced allegations from its employees that it pays low wages, fails to promote women, retaliates against protesting workers and, most relevant, hires unsafe and potentially exploitative subcontractors.

“The Fair Food Program is a transformative, model program. This is a big victory for farmworkers. We congratulate them,” said Erica Smiley, campaigns director for Jobs With Justice. “Now, if Walmart would do the same for the more than 1 million workers it employs in the U.S. and the many more millions around the world, we’d be in good shape.”

Walmart did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

“The goal was for Walmart to join the Fair Food Program, which is an established program with one set of rules for everyone,” said Greg Asbed of the CIW. “Walmart ultimately did that and, to its credit, helped grow the program by pledging to expand its commitment to tomatoes outside of Florida and crops beyond tomatoes.”

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