Q&A with Greg Asbed and Gerardo Reyes Chavez

Greg Asbed is a fierce advocate fighting against forced labor, sexual violence, and other gross human rights violations. He was awarded the 2015 Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts in Combating Human Trafficking at the White House on behalf of the Fair Food Program (FFP). As a co-founder, Greg leads the development of innovative market-based enforcement mechanisms, rights standards, and worker education processes. Through this program he coordinates relations among many agriculture stakeholders, including corporate buyers, industry suppliers, and farm workers. He has consulted both nationally and internationally on the adaption of the FFP to other contexts. He is the co-founder of the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model, which has been recognized for its unique effectiveness in combating the above-mentioned human rights violations in agriculture. Greg has won numerous awards, including the 2014 Clinton Global Citizen Award and the 2016 James Beard Leadership Award. He was also named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow. He is an advisory board member of the EU’s Horizon 2020 project to end forced labor in supply chains.

Gerardo Reyes Chavez is a key leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW), mobilizing communities across the world to advocate for the rights of exploited workers. Through CIW’s Fair Food Program, Gerardo has facilitated unique partnerships among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies to ensure humane wages and working conditions for the workers on the participating farms. Gerardo leads workers’ rights education programs, as well as managing the complexities of complaints of abuses in the fields, wage theft claims, and investigating cases of modern-day slavery. He has spoken publicly about the Fair Food Program at events such as Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program Convening on Farm Labor Challenges and the Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility’s Multi-stakeholder Roundtable on Ethical Recruitment. Gerardo is a 2018 Aspen Institute Ricardo Salinas Scholar.

TEDMED: As you two mentioned in your TEDMED Talk, the Fair Food Program (FFP) model is being used in different industries and in different countries. Tell us more about how it’s being used outside of the American agricultural industry.

Greg & Gerardo: The Fair Food Program was the first, fully operational example of the new paradigm for protecting workers fundamental human rights in global supply chains known as Worker-driven Social Responsibility, or WSR. One of the other foundational examples of the new WSR model is the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety in the Bangladesh apparel industry. The Accord came together following the horrific Rana Plaza building collapse that led to the deaths of more than 1,100 people in 2013, and it employs the same key mechanisms as the Fair Food Program — binding legal agreements between brands and worker and/or human rights organizations, worker voice throughout the monitoring and enforcement process, and the suspension of sales to participating brands when its standards are violated by suppliers— to ensure that no worker need fear that the building where he or she works will be their tomb due to easily preventable fire and structural hazards. The Accord has been a great success and has saved countless workers lives by preventing the tragic accidents that previously killed workers in the apparel industry by the hundreds every year.

Likewise, workers in many other industries — from the poultry plants of Arkansas to the movie sets of Hollywood — have taken note of the model’s unique power to prevent abuses and are working today to establish enforceable standards in their own workplaces.

TM: The FFP model has successfully interrupted deep-rooted patterns of violence and modern-day slavery in the agricultural industry. What do you think makes the program so effective?

G&G: The Program’s success is due to two key elements: 1) the participation of workers, from start to finish, in the standards-setting, monitoring, and enforcement process and, 2) its ability to harness the purchasing power of the billion dollar brands as both carrot and stick to encourage growers to participate and to enforce Program’s standards when they are violated. Workers not only know exactly how, when and where abuses take place in the fields, they also happen to be there when the vast majority of abuses take place. That makes them ideally suited to both set the standards for the Program and to be the front-line monitors of their own rights. But no matter how strong a set of standards may be, or even how well monitored, if the power to enforce those standards is missing, then it is all for naught. The purchasing power of the multi-billion dollar brands at the top of the food industry — companies like Whole Foods and McDonald’s — is the power that drives compliance in the Fair Food Program. And the incentive their purchases represent to the growers in the Program is so great that it not only fixes violations when they occur, it brings about the gold standard of enforcement — prevention — making a world without victims, the best possible outcome, possible.

TM: Tell us about the upcoming “4 for Fair Food Tour.” Who is involved and what are you hoping to achieve with the program?

G&G: The 4 for Fair Food Tour is a continuation of the CIW’s ongoing national boycott against the fast food giant, Wendy’s. Along with students, people of faith, and community leaders, farmworkers and their families will be traveling across the country to four of the nation’s top public institutions with Wendy’s restaurants on campus – Ohio State University, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of Michigan and University of Florida – to call on the administration at each university to end business relations with Wendy’s.

As the sole major fast food company that has yet to join the Fair Food Program, Wendy’s has been offering stock public relations answers in response to what is a very real, very troubling human rights crisis in agriculture. This tour is about making it clear to Wendy’s that consumers are clear-eyed and deeply committed to real, tangible change for farmworkers, and that Wendy’s refusal to join the most successful supply chain monitoring program in the country has consequences for the company’s brand and business relationships. Because these universities have very clearly stated values and mission statements that support human rights in their suppliers’ operations — for example, in the apparel companies that produce their university logo sportswear — and because the students at these schools clearly support the idea of exploitation-free consumption when possible, we have already seen strong support for the campaign in both the student communities and the cities where the universities are located. We expect that we will see Wendy’s restaurants removed from campus, as were Taco Bell restaurants on 28 campuses around the country during the Taco Bell boycott fifteen years ago, as the students ramp up the pressure on their administrations to live up to the schools’ stated values. That pressure was ultimately successful in prompting Taco Bell to be the first fast-food giant to join the Fair Food Program, and we are confident that it will have the same impact in making Wendy’s the last major fast-food company to join.

TM:  What’s next for CIW?

G&G: As we grow and expand, we will continue to advance every level of our work: We will help convey the lessons and potential of the WSR model to new industries and regions across the globe. We will fortify the gains we’ve made in the current seven states of the Fair Food Program, and expand those protections to more states and crops. We will travel the country and the world to educate public figures, academics, leaders, and everyday consumers about the challenges faced by farmworkers, and the responsibility of consumers to get involved in transforming the food system so that it is more humane and more just. We will win new partnerships with corporate buyers to drive expansion of the Program – Wendy’s, for example, in the not so distant future. And, of course, we will continue to do everything we can to ensure that the people harvesting our food, sewing our clothes, assembling our phones, building our homes, and doing so many more of the crucial jobs at the bottom of global corporate supply chains are empowered to be the frontline monitors of their own human rights.