This article was originally published by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.

The theme of this year’s UN Forum on Business and Human Rights – “rights holders at the center” – raises the questions of what it means for rights holders to be at the center, and how does placing rights holders at the center create change? These questions have been the subject of our recent research focusing on the Fair Food Program in US agriculture, in which we apply a political economy approach to explore the role of participating farmers in implementing Worker Social Responsibility (WSR) initiatives. WSR initiatives center workers, but cannot be successful without the buy-in of suppliers – as actors not at the center, but rather in the middle – between the retailer buyers at one end of the supply chain and farm workers, as rights holders, at the other.

The Fair Food Program was created by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a rights holder-led organization, and marks the first implementation of the WSR model. The CIW harnessed market forces by campaigning for large food retailers to enter binding agreements to pay a small premium on purchases from participating suppliers – which goes to workers as a bonus on their paychecks – and to suspend purchases from suppliers which do not uphold the code of conduct. The farmworker leaders at CIW defined the code and deliver worker rights education sessions to workers on farms, on the clock, in the presence of management. The Fair Foods Standards Council, the third-party organization responsible for monitoring supplier compliance with the Fair Food Program, operates a 24/7, multilingual complaint hotline and conducts in-depth audits, including interviews with no less than 50% of workers, on participating farms. The Program’s success in improving working conditions and preventing abuse, such as forced labor and sexual assault, has been documented.

We spoke to three farming operations, representing a diversity of crops, farm size, and length of time in the program: Bloomia, a flower grower in Virginia and one of the newest members of the Fair Food Program; Alderman Organic Farms, a 300-acre farm in Florida, which was the first to implement the Program; and Pacific Tomato Growers, a division of Sunripe Certified Brands, which operates in multiple US states and Mexico, and was the first grower from the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to join, providing the impetus for other members to do the same. Our conversations revealed the success of the program relies on effective partnership and collaboration among all stakeholders. Change comes from worker leadership and connection from the CIW, in partnership with the Fair Foods Standards Council and their collaboration with suppliers in ensuring implementation of the code of conduct.

Key points raised by interviewees include:

Hearing directly from workers – The farmers said the Fair Food Program created an atmosphere where workers could raise issues without negative consequences from their employers. Farms which retaliate against workers who complain face market consequences, in the form of lost sales to participating buyers. More importantly, workers could see their complaints addressed. Jon Esformes, at Pacific Tomato Growers, noted the Program, “created a bridge so we could have the relationship with our employees we should have been having for years.”

Improvements in management style – Participation in the program – including workers and managers jointly attending regular education sessions, and the requirement for management to respond and address worker complaints – also changed the farms’ management approach. Bloomia and Pacific Tomato Growers, noted managers had become less aggressive and more friendly toward workers. Jon Esformes drew the trajectory from decades ago to today, where the Program has “created a culture of safety and security.”

A cycle of learning and improving – All of the farms expressed appreciation for the Standards Council’s complaint handling, auditing and overall guidance. Alderman remarked, “They show you your weaknesses…and they try to patch the gap that might lead to something being wrong down the road.” Esformes also noted, “We’re always a better company after our audit.”

With the UN Forum in full swing, the Fair Food Program underlines the multiple benefits of effectively tackling power imbalances which marginalize rights holders. For farmworkers, such power imbalances include the supply chain dynamics that drive prices down at the farm gate and, in turn, affect wages and working conditions in the fields. Having experienced these conditions first-hand, the farmworker leaders of the Fair Food Program leveraged the volume purchasing power of the highly consolidated US food market to improve wages and incentivize compliance with human rights. As a result, the Program marshals a full complement of stakeholders – consumers, retail buyers, farm owners, and managers, the Standards Council, and workers – to ensure dignity and safety for farmworkers.  Discourse on rights holders at the center must similarly confront the epistemic and political economic origins of power imbalances and include all stakeholders necessary to implement robust human rights protections and effective access to remedy.

By Antonella Angelini, Senior (postdoc) Research Fellow at the Institute for Business Ethics, University of St Gallen, Switzerland and Shauna Curphey, human rights lawyer, researcher and co-director of Just Ground and former associate general counsel for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash