It’s strange that, even though food is one of the most basic and universal human needs, those who labor to make it readily available to most of us have traditionally gotten so little respect.
And that may be the bottom line for Greg Asbed and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Respect.
After years working tirelessly to forge a relationship of respect between farm workers and those whose labor allows healthy and life-sustaining fruits and vegetables to get to market, Mr. Asbed has earned a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
An 18-season veteran of harvesting watermelons in Florida and surrounding states, Mr. Asbed has an intimate understanding of the lives of this nation’s farm workers – the long, hard hours of labor in numbing cold and searing heat for little pay, the affronts to human dignity so many of them have had to endure, their hopes for a better tomorrow, their pride.
Working with other activists in Immokalee to establish the CIW in 1993 put Mr. Asbed firmly on the path to his life’s work.
The CIW has provided a platform to address grievances like wages, working conditions and long-entrenched abuses, up to and including harassment of women in the field and even actual slavery. Their success of the CIW put Immokalee at the center of the fight for farm worker rights — a struggle that is reaching around the country and the world.
For Mr. Asbed, CIW’s launching of the Fair Food Program has been the most successful and satisfying of its endeavors.
The Fair Food Program has lifted farm laborers to the status of partnership with farmers and food companies in the marketplace.
It took 10 years of intensive work in the Immokalee-based campaign to establish the Fair Food Program in 2011 just to force those higher up in the market chain to recognize the workers’ grievances.
It is the Fair Food Program that Mr. Asbed is most proud of.
In his own words, the program “combines the participation of workers as front-line defenders of their own rights in the fields, with the market power of the multibillion-dollar buyers of produce to enforce those rights. What’s best about the program is that it is truly a ‘win-win-win’ proposition, where workers’ lives are improved immeasurably; growers’ operations are likewise improved, with less risk of lawsuits and Department of Labor actions and greater productivity, as workers stay on the job longer and turnover and training costs go down; and buyers also see benefits from the program, as they no longer have to be concerned about the public relations risk of slavery cases or other horrible forms of labor abuse being exposed in their supply chains.”
MacArthur Fellowships are awarded to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” according to the MacArthur Foundation, and they are intended for those who have:
• Exceptional creativity;
• The promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments; and the potential for the Fellowship to facilitate subsequent;
• Creative work.
They are intended to “enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.”
Nominations come from people outside the MacArthur Foundation who have a broad range of fields and areas of interests. Nominees are evaluated by an individual Selection Committee of leaders in the arts, science, humanities professions and profit or non-profit companies and then chosen by the president and board of directors of McArthur Foundation.
A resident of LaBelle, Mr. Asbed earned his MacArthur grant as a human rights strategist for “transforming conditions for low-wage workers with a visionary model of worker-driven social responsibility,” the foundation states. His pride in his association with CIW is obvious. He explains its success this way: “ The CIW today is a nationally, and even internationally, recognized leader in the field of business and human rights. Specifically, the CIW’s Fair Food Program, with 14 multibillion- dollar retail food companies and virtually the entire Florida tomato industry as partners, has been recognized by observers from the White House to the United Nations as the most successful new model for protecting workers’ fundamental human rights in corporate supply chains in the world today. We’ve been able to eliminate longstanding abuses that used to define farm labor here in Florida — problems like widespread sexual harassment of women in the fields, systemic wage theft, and even forced labor — by leveraging the purchasing power of companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s to require growers to improve labor conditions on their farms if they want to sell to the buyers participating in the Fair Food Program. And we have expanded the program from the Florida tomato industry to six new states up the East Coast and two new crops. It’s a truly powerful model, and when we started over 20 years ago demanding more humane conditions for farm workers in the streets of Immokalee, it would have been impossible to imagine a day when we would be negotiating agreements with companies like Wal-Mart and have the kind of close, positive partnerships with growers that we have today. The trajectory of our history over the past two decades is truly so remarkable that it almost wouldn’t be believable as a Hollywood movie!”
His grant will be used to expand and sustain the organization he has cultivated.
Mr. Asbed points out that “what’s best about the program is that it is truly a ‘winwin- win’ proposition, where workers’ lives are improved immeasurably; growers’ operations are likewise improved, with less risk of lawsuits and Department of Labor actions and greater productivity, as workers stay on the job longer and turnover and training costs go down; and buyers also see benefits from the program, as they no longer have to be concerned about the public relations risk of slavery cases or other horrible forms of labor abuse being exposed in their supply chains.”
For Mr. Asbed, the biggest challenge is expanding the Fair Food Program’s “ground breaking protections to more and more workers across the country. Today, about 35,000 workers enjoy the program’s protections in the fields where they pick tomatoes, strawberries, and peppers. But there are hundreds of thousands of more workers who continue to face the abuses that we have managed to eliminate in the Fair Food Program, and we get calls every day from workers in other crops and other states asking for us to bring the program to their fields. Of course, if it were as easy as just wishing it to happen, we’d be across the country by now, but in fact it requires resources, the will of the growers and the will of the buyers to make it work, and those take time to mobilize.
“Growing the Fair Food Program is the immediate future. Helping workers in other industries and other countries establish their own versions of the program where they work will be another phase of our work in the future, as well, and has already started in places like Bangladesh, Morocco and Europe.
What has made the CIW so successful? According to Mr. Asbed, it’s “the people who have made it so successful all these years, hands down.” “From the incredible staff in Immokalee, to the thousands of CIW members, to the tens of thousands of committed consumers across the country who have dedicated their time and energy to ensuring that the workers who harvest their food are treated fairly and with the respect they deserve for the hard and dangerous work they do every day to put food on our tables, the people who have made our success possible are the CIW’s biggest asset.”
After expending so much of his time and talent to the farm worker cause, Mr. Asbed still recognizes the most important part of life – family. Of course, the CIW has been a major part of his life, but, he said, “I don’t know that it has changed me as a person, really. I think the arrival of my son Isaiah into this world 12 years ago had a greater impact on my life than my work with the CIW. Thanks to him, I have coached Junior Pro basketball now for several years and coached Upward Flag Football for two years (he aged out of flag football this year, but we remain involved because it’s so much fun), and I have gotten to know countless other kids and their families in LaBelle as a result. And thanks to him, we bought the house we had been renting for 14 years before he joined the family and built on to it, which means I’ve become a much better gardener and handyman than I ever was before.
“My wife, Laura, and I have a deeper investment in our community — both in Immokalee where we work and in LaBelle where we live — than we had before, in the schools, in the kids, and in the success of our two hometowns for 26 years now, and that’s a great thing.”