Obligations and Opportunities for Farmworker Justice

by Caitlin Joseph

Anyone who cares about public health and nutrition, affordable and healthy food access, agricultural sustainability, rural communities, international trade, or corporate social responsibility, should be paying close attention to how the recent rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy will impact the people the U.S food system is currently dependent on: farmworkers. On Wednesday, April 19, farmworker activists from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) who live and work on the frontlines of these issues will be at the Friedman School to talk about their current campaigns and their perspective on the recent political landscape.

Since its inception, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) Fair Food Program (FFP) has revolutionized the fresh tomato industry in Florida, which Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Molloy once described as “ground zero” for modern slavery (Stern, 2013). Hired farmworkers remain among the most economically disadvantaged populations in the U.S. They have some of the lowest wages in the workforce and experience frequent periods of unemployment, due to the seasonal nature of their work (CIW, 2014). According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, between 2007 and 2014, 25 percent of farmworkers worked more than 50 hours per week and were paid an average of $9.57 hourly. During that time, 24 percent of workers also had non-farm jobs throughout the year, 55 percent had children, and average family incomes ranged from $17,500 – $24,999 (National Agricultural Workers Survey, 2016).

In addition to the economic hardship of farm labor, many workers face brutal working conditions that include extended exposure to the elements, sexual harassment and assault, physical and verbal abuse, and often-toxic contact with pesticides and farm chemicals (CIW, 2014; National Agricultural Workers Survey, 2016; Strochlic, 2010). Moreover, an average of 66 percent of farmworkers did not have health insurance between 2007-2014 (National Agricultural Workers Survey, 2016).

The CIW Approach: Third-Party Verified Corporate Social Responsibility

Through worker-led advocacy, CIW engages downstream brands in produce supply chains to gain commitments for its Fair Food Program (FFP), through which, companies agree to pay an additional penny per pound for the tomatoes they purchase in exchange for verification that growers in their supply chain are in compliance with the Fair Food Code of Conduct, which includes zero tolerance for forced labor, child labor, violence and sexual assault. Participating growers agree to use the premium they receive to increase wages for workers, and receive inspections from the Fair Foods Standards Council (Fair Food Program, 2015 Annual Report: Worker-Driven Social Responsibility, 2015).

Why is it effective?

Over time, retailers have gained an increasing share of the food dollar from farm to plate. As Figure 1 shows, the average monthly retail price of tomatoes in 2015 was 75 cents higher than in 1992, while the value received at the farm gate was one cent lower. Between 1992 and 2015, the percentage of the retail value received at the farm gate (the farm share) declined 17 percent.


Figure 1: Farm to Retail Price Spreads, 1992-2015

Source: Calculated by ERS, USDA, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).


Mergers and acquisitions have increased the consolidation of market share in the retail industry and placed downward pressure on the prices for tomato growers (Kaufman, Handy, Mclaughlin, & Green, 2000; Sexton, 2010). While retailers took home the lion’s share of food dollar gains since the 1990s, farmers faced tightening margins and increasing import competition from Canada and Mexico, which now account for one third of U.S. fresh tomato consumption (USDA Economic Research Service, 2016). Mexico invested heavily in the development of protected plant varieties in recent years, allowing its growers to capture a growing share of the import market (USDA Economic Research Service, 2016). As a result, domestic farmworker wages remained stagnant at rates reflecting those of the 1970s (Asbed & Sellers, 2013). The FFP premium allows farmers to recapture the one-cent per pound of the revenue lost to retailers since the 1990s and siphons those gains to farm-laborers.

Wendy’s and FFP

Despite CIW’s success in securing commitments from major restaurant brands and retailers in recent years, Wendy’s remains the only one of the five largest fast food companies that has yet to participate in the FFP. Instead, it developed its own Code of Conduct, meant to satisfy organizers calling for the company to improve its practices. This code, however, doesn’t come close to providing the verifiable protections that the FFP’s Code of Conduct involves. Wendy’s has also shifted its tomato procurement to Mexico since the FFP began operating in Florida. As a result, CIW is calling for widespread pledges to Boycott Wendy’s until they comply.

Anti-Immigration Policies: Impacts on Agriculture and the Food Supply

While it remains unclear how the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies will hold up to further challenges in federal courts, we don’t have to look far into the past to find examples of how harsh policies and rhetoric can negatively impact domestic agricultural industries. In the years following the passage of strict anti-immigration policies in Alabama and Arizona, for example, workers fled, crops rotted in the field, and farmers lost revenue. Production of certain fruit and vegetable crops in those states dropped, as many produce farmers retired early or shifted production to trees and other less labor-intensive crops. Farmers and poultry processors in Alabama tried to save their industries by recruiting unemployed U.S. citizens to work in their fields and factories, but found that these workers simply weren’t up to the task, and many quit early.


These case studies serve as a warning sign that mass immigrant intimidation and deportation could result in shocks to our food supply, increased food waste to field losses (and associated natural resource waste), increased food prices, less wholesome foods on our plates, and further blows to rural agricultural economies that are already struggling. Conversely, analysts project that increasing farmworker wages enough to lift most out of poverty would 1) yield minimal impacts on U.S. consumer spending; 2) drive mechanization in agriculture, potentially increasing agricultural efficiency and the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables; and 3) pose little threat to the global competitiveness of U.S. agricultural industries (Martin, 2011). Such estimates imply that ensuring safe, dignified lives for farmworkers in U.S. could benefit nearly everything we work for here at the Friedman School.

The Friedman Justice League will host the April 19th seminar, and hopes that faculty, staff, and students alike will attend to learn why we as citizens, students, and food system professionals should look to farmworkers’ struggle to lead our practice, knowing that their pathway to justice is the same pathway that can lead us to a healthier, more sustainable food system.

Caitlin Joseph is a second-year master’s candidate in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program, specializing in Food Systems Planning and Public Health. She approaches food systems issues from a human rights framework, and hopes to use the tools she’s gaining at Tufts to help manifest a brighter future for people and the planet. Before grad school, her hobbies included gardening, teaching kids to garden, and making as many things as possible out of rhubarb (also from her garden).

Works Cited

Asbed, G., & Sellers, S. (2013). The Fair Food Program: Comprehensive, Verifiable and Sustainable Change for Farmworkers. U. Pa. J.L. & Soc. Change, 16(1). Retrieved from http://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/jlasc/vol16/iss1/3This

CIW (2014). Fair Food Program, 2014 Annual Report: Worker-Driven Social Responsibility. Retrieved from fairfoodstandards.org

CIW (2015). Fair Food Program, 2015 Annual Report: Worker-Driven Social Responsibility. (2015). Retrieved from http://fairfoodstandards.org/15SOTP-Web.pdf

Kaufman, P. R., Handy, C. R., Mclaughlin, E. W., & Green, G. M. (2000). Understanding the Dynamics of Produce Markets: Consumption and Consolidation Grow. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=42295

Martin, P. (2011). Would a raise for fruit and vegetable workers diminish the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture? (EPI Briefing Paper No. #295). Washington, D.C. Retrieved from http://www.epi.org/files/page/-/old/briefingpapers/BriefingPaper295.pdf

National Agricultural Workers Survey (2016) U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and

Training Administration. Retrieved 20 November 2016 from https://www.doleta.gov/agworker/naws.cfm#d-tables

Sexton, R. J. (2010). Grocery Retailers’ Dominant Role in Evolving World Food Markets. Choices Magazine, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, 25(2). Retrieved from http://econpapers.repec.org/article/agsaaeach/94763.htm

Stern, S. (2013). Building Partnerships to Eradicate Modern-Day Slavery: Report of Recommendations to the President. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/advisory_council_humantrafficking_report.pdf

Strochlic, R. (2010). Toward a More Socially Just Farm Labor Contracting System in California.

USDA Economic Research Service (2016). Tomatoes. Retrieved from: http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/vegetables-pulses/tomatoes.aspx).