Addressing Root Causes - The Coalition of Immokolee Workers

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) works in Florida to change the power imbalance between immigrant farm workers and the U.S. agricultural industry. To succeed, the organization strives to build the leadership skills, advocacy abilities, and sense of community of its approximately 5,000 members. Coming from various ethnic backgrounds, particularly Mexican, Guatemalan, and Haitian, CIW members are united by the common cause and language of human rights. As CIW member Lucas Benitez explains: “Using a rights-based approach to our work means everything to us because it unites the three primary communities that make up our coalition. Human rights is a language that we heard in our own countries and it opens up avenues to communicate with those who are newly arrived to the United States.” Maintaining a strong sense of community allows the Coalition to effectively lead campaigns focused on upholding the dignity of immigrant farm workers.

CIW’s “Campaign for Fair Food” is a prime example. The Campaign strives to hold large food corporations accountable for their role in farm workers’ exploitation. In the late 1990s, CIW members discovered that large food corporations such as McDonald’s use their buying power to demand extremely low prices from Florida tomato growers. As a result, growers cut costs by paying farm workers sub-poverty wages. Out of this realization emerged the Campaign’s first project: a boycott of Taco Bell. Begun in 2001 with a small press conference in Fort Meyers, Florida, the boycott quickly grew into a nationwide movement.

College students, religious organizations, and others joined CIW members in demanding that Taco Bell’s parent company, Yum Brands, address the working conditions on suppliers’ farms. Benitez credits this impressive coalition to the organization’s use of human rights. He states, “We are asking for something that is very basic and it opens doors for us with religious congregations, universities, students, and so forth. Human rights is the platform that has allowed us to reach out to other arenas in order to move our struggle forward.” Focusing on the human rights to a livable wage and safe working conditions, students on twenty-one campuses across the country successfully removed or blocked Taco Bell restaurants from their institutions. Simultaneously, numerous religious organizations provided financial assistance and joined Immokalee workers as they protested, organized sit-ins, and did a 10-day hunger strike outside of the corporation’s headquarters.
Throughout the boycott, the farm workers’ leadership gave the Campaign greater legitimacy. “Unlike many anti-sweatshop or consumer campaigns,” CIW co-founder Greg Asbed emphasizes, “the Taco Bell boycott stood out for the simple fact that the very workers whose labor conditions were the subject of the boycott were the unquestioned and ever-present leaders of the campaign.” Indeed, after four years of advocacy and increased media attention, Yum Brands agreed to work with CIW to improve farm workers’ wages and labor conditions. The corporation signed the legally binding “CIW-Yum Agreement” during a massive press conference on March 8, 2005. The Agreement required Yum Brands to pay farm workers a penny per pound more to offset low wages, create a Code of Conduct for their suppliers to prevent slave labor, provide market incentives for suppliers who respect their workers’ human rights, and maintain 100 percent transparency for Taco Bell’s tomato purchases. The Agreement also created an investigative body for monitoring workers’ complaints. Partially composed of CIW members, this body serves as a primary mechanism for farm workers to judge Yum Brands’ compliance.
Overall, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is proud of what it has accomplished. The Campaign for Fair Food has continued with other buyers and growers, and now the CIW’s Fair Food principles – including a strict code of conduct, a cooperative complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process – apply to over 90% of Florida’s tomato fields.