Interview with Coalition of Immokalee Workers co-founder Lucas Benitez

18 October 2015

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is an American, worker-based human rights organisation based in Immokalee, Florida. Established in 1993, it has grown from its humble beginnings meeting weekly in a room borrowed from a local church to becoming what the Washington Post has called ‘one of the great human rights successes of our day’. In an attempt to rectify farm labour exploitation and corporate abuses, they devised the revolutionary Fair Food Program: a partnership between farmworkers, tomato growers, and 14 major food retailers, including Wal-Mart, Subway, Ahold and McDonald’s. This innovative model includes a legally binding Code of Conduct addressing human rights issues such as trafficking and sexual harassment, and the innovative ‘penny-a-pound’ scheme, where brands agree to pay a penny more per pound for their tomatoes. This has led to workers receiving 15 million dollars in extra pay between 2011-2014. The CIW were also recently awarded the ‘2015 Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts Combatting Modern-Day Slavery’.

Lucas Benitez is one of the co-founders of this pioneering organisation. In this interview with Fairfood’s Richard Glass, he talks about the secrets behind the organisation’s success, the fight to reign in supermarket power and the philosophy underpinning his remarkable journey in life armed only with that he refers to as a “Master’s in tomato picking”.

Could you tell me how you went from humble beginnings as a Mexican migrant worker to being the head of this influential workers’ organisation?

I arrived here when I was 17 years old and decided to work in the fields, but when I started I witnessed the verbal and physical abuse, and I suffered those abuses. This is why we started the CIW, because we wanted to change this imbalance of power between farm workers and the food industry. When we started it was really difficult because Immokalee is farmed by three communities. There are Mexicans, Guatemalans and Haitian people, so we don’t speak the same language.

The main focus in the early 1990s was the tomato industry and the farmers. We organised a lot of mass actions and strikes to change the situation. During the first years of the CIW from 1992 to 2000, we eliminated physical abuse in the fields and reduced wage theft. We were making some progress, but not real change, so that’s why we started the Fair Food Campaign in 2001. A lot of people know about the CIW because of the four-year Taco Bell boycott from 2001-2005. However, first we did a lot of work in our community through alliances with students, people from churches, and consumers: the people that go to the stores or restaurants, and buy or eat the tomatoes. The whole process has grown organically. We started with local actions and the next step was going to the buyers, like McDonalds, Taco Bell and Burger King. After the Taco Bell boycott, we signed our first agreement and now we have fourteen corporations working with us.

You started as a group of workers meeting in a small church hall and now sign deals with companies like Wal-Mart. Why have you succeeded, where other development organisations and worker’s organisations have failed? What is your secret?

I think the main secret is that this campaign is driven by us, by farm workers. I am a farm worker, and the staff at CIW are all farm workers. We work and live in this community and we decided what change we wanted to see in the industry. The main secret is our commitment and our consciousness. We have a formula that forms the basis of our work, the equation C + C = C, which stands for Consciousness + Commitment = Change. And really I think that is the key to real leadership development among the worker community.

A lot of people are quite cynical about NGOs/charities, because they feel a lot of the money isn’t going to the people who really need it. It seems you believe what makes the CIW so powerful is that the workers are in charge. Is this a new model and what’s your experience, if any, with charities?

There has always been this movement in the US to support workers who are in factories in Asia or Latin America, so a lot of the spokespersons for those movements are not the people who are principally affected. They are not the factory workers themselves. It’s someone who is basically saying: ‘I am an expert on this thing’. In our case, workers not only organise everything, but they are the spokespeople and the principal designers of the work.

We have never focused our work on charity, or used that framework, because a question that we’ve asked from the beginning is: ‘Why on earth does a farm worker who gets up at four or five in the morning, and works a ten to twelve-hour day, need to receive charity?’ The framework that we’ve always used from the very beginning in our work is the human rights framework. It is a human right be able to have food on the table and a dignified wage when you’re working hard. This is another key element that has opened many doors for us, because who is against human rights? All of these agreements that we have with different companies don’t have a time limit, because there shouldn’t be an expiration date on human rights.

One thing that I find amazing is the simplicity of the model that you have, that you go to supermarkets, they sign up to the programme and those that don’t follow the code of conduct are expelled from the supply chain. Why isn’t this being applied to more or other food commodities and not just tomatoes?

We invented this model, but this model is created not only for us. If the people in Bangladesh or Europe want to implement this model, it is a model that can be replicated. It can actually be adapted to other industries. We are working very closely with dairy workers in Vermont, for example. So what we have been doing in order to replicate this model is talking with them, meeting with them and giving advice to help them to figure out how to replicate the success that we’ve had in our industry. This model has been created by farm workers in Florida, but it holds promise for workers all over the world.

One thing I am really curious about, after a while you switched your focus to primarily to the large corporate players: the retailers and the supermarkets. Is consultation with governments important as well or would you say the power lies with these corporations?

We think that the reality today across the world is that the people who are really creating policies and setting the rules are major multinational corporations. In many cases, governments may as well be puppets for large corporate interests.

If you really want to make changes in the policies and the ways things actually work, in many industries you need to go where the power really is, which is with those corporate buyers. That’s a really critical part of our model; that we created a market consequence for failure to comply. For many years, there have been laws that supposedly protect the rights of workers, and recently there have been corporate social responsibility initiatives. However, the question that you have to ask is who is writing these laws and policies? And who is in charge of actually enforcing them?

For example look at the tragedy that happened in Bangladesh, or slavery cases that are popping up in Mexican agricultural fields. All of those things are, of course, against the law. However, the laws and the social responsibility contracts were not written by workers.

In our particular programme, it’s nothing like that. First of all, the code of conduct and the rights that the workers now have were written and designed by workers. Secondly, these rights are enforced by workers, and that happens through worker-to-worker education, which occurs on the farm throughout the Fair Food programme so that workers know what their rights are and how to enforce them.

There are lots of documentaries that portray corporations as faceless, almost psychopathic entities. During your negotiations with supermarkets, retailers and corporations, did you feel they had a conscience or do they just make this decision to do it purely based on consumer power?

We sat across the table from the heads of these major companies and of course there are human beings behind them, but at the same time they are mainly concerned with the interests of their company. We’ve always said that this programme and our work really is a win/win situation it’s beneficial for workers at the bottom of the supply chain but it also holds benefits for the growers in the middle, and also the major retailers on top. We really do see that there is mutual benefit. As soon as everyone sees that, you can go from being at war with one another to looking towards the future together.

On your website it says the supermarket industry still has a long way to go to do its part. Could you explain that a little bit more?

We are still campaigning against Publix, a very large regional supermarket here in the south east of America as well as Kroger. We did, however, recently sign an agreement with Ahold USA, which is the parent company of Giant and Stop and Shop, and that was a major foot forward in bringing the supermarket industry on board. However, there are certainly companies that are still lagging behind.

I saw that you came to Amsterdam to speak with Ahold. Can you tell me why it took so long for them to join the programme and do you have faith they’re going to keep their word and keep to their promises in the code of conduct and monitor the programme they’ve agreed to?

Regarding your first point, I think it’s the fear of something new. This decision has to be made throughout the company and has to go through every layer of the company’s hierarchy, but once that decision is made, then we can move forward. And I would also just add that the agreements are legally binding, and we have in-depth monitoring of the Program.

In the Netherlands we have a couple of organisations that signed deals with big multinationals like Unilever to make more sustainable chains and obviously you’re working with a lot of corporate players. Is this the best way to work in cooperation or is there a danger that you can get too close to these corporate players?

When there is a really big problem, like sexual assault in the fields, under the agreements that we’ve signed, it will get reported and will be investigated. We involve these corporate buyers to eradicate those kinds of abuses. In that sense we do work with them, but it’s specifically to enforce solutions. What is really critical to understand about the FF Program and our work is that the solution is not something that comes from the top to the bottom, but rather it starts at the bottom and goes to the top. It’s the workers who are making decision themselves. That’s how we maintain connected to the ultimate purpose of our work, and ensure our work is firmly focused on workers and what they envision as solutions.

With regard to the ‘penny a pound’ principle, is this a compulsory part of the Fair Food programme which all the retailers and people who work with you pay?

The Fair Food Programme is the same for everybody who participates in it. Paying the penny for the pound, the code of conduct, monitoring and the market consequences. All of those things are essential ingredients to all of the FF agreements and there are no exceptions.

I saw that some supermarkets like Wal-Mart are thinking of expanding it past tomatoes to apples and strawberries for example. I see the benefit for workers, they get more money, but it seems like, outside of good PR, the supermarkets are going to lose a lot of money, so what is really in it for them?

The truth is that this is an opportunity for these corporate buyers to actually find a new way of doing business, to be truly sustainable and to make a concrete change. It’s actually the kind of thing that benefits not only workers and growers, but also the company itself in several different ways.

First of all, it’s good press for their company. Secondly, its something which consumers are looking for more and more, so it’s something that will leave their customers happier about the products that they’re offered. It’s also about avoiding risk, because for all of these companies – fast food companies or supermarkets – there’s an increasing need to know what’s in their supply chains. When atrocities occur at the bottom of someone’s supply chain, they’re held responsible for that, whether it’s Apple, Wal-Mart or Nike. If there’s a slavery case in a particular supply chain, it hurts their business. So this is the best workplace monitoring programme, which they are getting virtually for free with the exception of the penny for a pound, but frankly that’s a drop in the ocean for a lot of these corporations and they are getting the highest level of transparency one could possibly hope for in that particular supply chain.

From what I gather the key to the organisation is getting workers to have the courage to fight against injustice. I know you have been involved in lots of actions against violent traffickers. How do you get workers to overcome this fear of violence, torture or death?

My advice would just be to just go back to the roots of how we started, which again is that equation that I told you of C+C=C. You have to start with creating consciousness in a particular community. Workers have to make that decision: do I stay quiet or do I speak up for this?

Everybody knows about the crisis that is happening with migrants that are coming to Europe, who are experiencing extreme suffering in their countries of origin, and it’s really a similar process. There’s a point where in order to make progress for yourself and your family, you have to say ‘enough is enough’, even though it is frightening. It’s the same process in a workplace, where eventually someone just decides I am done with this and I need to find a solution to this problem.

Who are your heroes and what is your philosophy on creating change?

The person who has taught me the most and who I really admire would have to be my own grandmother who became a widow when my father was very young. She worked incredibly hard as a single mother to raise her children and to advance them and their education. She was also the one who really taught me to judge people by their character and not by the things that they own.

One thing in particular that I remember my father telling not only me, but my brothers as well, is that no matter what kind of work you do or what kind of job you have, even if you work for the richest most powerful person, always ask for what you are owed.

More information about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

For more information or if you would like to make a donation, please visit the website of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

You can also read our interview with Sanjay Rawal discussing his documentary ‘Food Chains’, a beautiful film capturing the courageous work of the CIW.