This year’s class of MacArthur Foundation fellows, announced today, includes a name familiar in Southwest Florida: Greg Asbed, a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
He’s among 24 people to earn the so-called “genius grant” this year, which comes with a $625,000 award for fellows to advance their causes.
“In so many ways this is going to help us expand reach of the Fair Food Program and worker-driven social responsibility model that grew out of it,” Asbed said Wednesday afternoon after the award was made public.
Asbed, along with Lucas Benitez and Laura Germino, founded the coalition in 1993 to fight for fair wages for farmworkers and end the rampant abuses they faced, from sexual assault to forced labor to withheld wages and other forms of exploitation. In its 24 years, the coalition has led anti-slavery campaigns, liberating more than 1,200 workers; spearheaded an industry-rattling boycott of Taco Bell; led a six-month hunger strike and a 234-mile march from Fort Myers to Orlando to protest declining wages in the tomato industry; and won industry-wide raises of 13 to 25 percent for laborers.
But it’s the synthesis of these efforts, the Fair Food Program, that perhaps has had the greatest impact. The program is inspiring change not just in Florida’s fields but also in agricultural communities throughout the United States and in traditionally low-paying, highly exploitative industries around the world.
The program created a partnership among farmworkers, tomato growers and participating retail buyers. It established new labor standards, protected wages and set up a Fair Food Standards Council, a third-party monitor to ensure compliance. (The audits are tough, requiring, among other things, monitors to interview 50 percent of the workforce to verify compliance.) In the legally binding Fair Food Agreements, participating buyers pledge to buy Florida tomatoes only from growers who adhere to the Fair Food Program standards and cease to buy from growers who do not follow its code of conduct.
Critically, it’s workers who drive the changes—insisting on standards and regulations that only someone on the frontlines would consider. As one example, the Fair Food Program includes a provision stipulating that workers, paid by the bucket, cannot be required to overfill their containers, Asbed explained. It’s the workers, too, who educate their fellow laborers about the agreed-upon rules and their rights.
“The whole model from beginning to end is about worker participation,” Asbed said.
The Fair Food Program evolved into a new model for worker protection known as “worker-driven social responsibility,” or WSR. The approach ensures that human rights are respected in the workplace, that workers help determine standards and codes of conduct, and that monitoring and enforcement standards are established. Asbed is a founder of the new Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network, headquartered in New York.
The fight in Florida is not over—big corporations including Wendy’s and Publix have yet to sign on to the Fair Food Program—and Asbed and the coalition continue to push for change here. At the same time, they are helping other companies and other industries craft agreements based on WSR principles. In just the past month, the coalition has celebrated a new Milk with Dignity agreement between the Vermont dairy industry and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. CIW representative Lupe Gonzalo appeared with soccer star Abby Wambach and her partner, Naples author Glennon Doyle, on at a multi-city women’s conference. Gonzalo spoke of ending sexual violence against female farmworkers.
“There’s a world of problems today,” Asbed says. “Most of them don’t have proven solutions that you can just plug and fix, but this one does. We can stop violence against women in the field with this (WSR) program. We’ve done it.”
Incidentally, he’s a first-generation Armenian-American. His grandmother survived the Armenian Genocide by being taken into captivity and sold—twice—starting at age 13. The fight for human rights intertwined in his family’s story.
According to the MacArthur Foundation: “Workforces engaged with other crops in Florida, the garment industry in Bangladesh, and the dairy industry in Vermont have already or are in the process of adopting the WSR approach, and Asbed's expertise is being sought by international organizations for the development of customized variants of the WSR model to address such issues as child labor in Africa and gender-based violence in domestic work settings in Mexico. Asbed's visionary strategy for WSR has the potential to transform workplace environments across the global supply chain.”