April 2015: Worker-Driven Social Responsibility as a Method of Monitoring

Publish Date: 
Wednesday, April 1, 2015

If we understand a human rights crisis in terms of disease, finding the cure depends on the right diagnosis, the combination of monitoring (determining symptoms) and root cause analysis of the problem (identifying the underlying disease).  However, the ultimate cure lies in well-designed prevention and enforcement. Monitoring is not a solution in itself, or even a strategy, it is merely a tactic. Therefore, one must ask: a tactic towards what end? What makes monitoring worth the time and energy?  After all, surfacing, noting and viewing the suffering of others is hardly a pleasant endeavor for anyone endowed with basic human empathy, and doing so can only be justified if it has a higher social value. 

Thus, human rights monitoring must be an integral part of the solution to human rights violations. It must feed into either a powerful advocacy or enforcement strategy.  On the advocacy side, surfacing and making a problem visible is often the first necessary step to developing a strategic solution, and it would be interesting to know the experiences of others who have used monitoring for this end.  In this piece, I will focus on enforcement by sharing the groundbreaking work coming out of the farmworker community in Immokalee, Florida that is revolutionizing supply chain accountability and has led to a new model of enforcement now called Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR).

WSR emerged out the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) astoundingly effective campaign called the Campaign for Fair Food which resulted in the Fair Food Program, involving workers, growers, and large corporate buyers.  The buyers and growers both have agreements with the CIW which include the following components:

  • A code of conduct detailing agreed upon rights that include but also exceed current legal standards. 
  • A price premium paid by buyers, passed-through by growers to workers increase salaries. 
  • Market sanctions for violations and a complaints process. 
  • A worker-to-worker education program on the farm and on the clock.
  • A third party independent monitor, the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC).

The key to the success of this program is that workers designed it. In terms of the monitoring within the program, CIW explains:

When corporations monitor their supply chains (if they do at all), they do so through quick-hitting audits, perfunctory snapshots of working conditions taken over the course of a few hours or, at most, days, with little or no worker participation...

In the WSR approach, workers themselves are the front line of a multi-layered, 24-hour, wall-to-wall monitoring system designed to capture violations of the code of conduct and weed out the bad actors and practices that cause those violations. In the Fair Food Program, for example, this is achieved through several key monitoring measures.  Worker-to-worker education is carried out (on the clock) twice a season by teams of CIW members on farms around the state.  … A 24-hr complaint line, answered live by the same Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC) staffers who investigate the complaints, ensures that workers’ input is not ignored and helps identify and eliminate the sources of code violations  … A strictly enforced zero tolerance policy for retaliation against workers has reinforced workers’ faith in, and use of, the FFP complaint process…. [which] also includes rigorous farm office and field audits carried out by the FFSC.  And unlike CSR audits, FFP audits are in-depth events that exceed standard audit industry practices on many levels, most importantly on that of [numbers of] worker interviews.  Further, FFP audits monitor not just outcomes, but the systems in place on the farms — or not in place, as was the case on the majority of farms when the program was launched in 2011 — that are necessary to make compliance even possible.    

The WSR approach has proven effective in eliminating forced labor and slavery as well as sexual abuse and dramatically reduced violations such as wage theft and sexual harassment.  The experience in Immokalee has shown us that it is the workers that can provide the necessary technical assistance, and most certainly the leadership, to design an effective program.  Other efforts, such as the Bangladesh accords are moving towards this type of enforcement model as well. What other examples exist of monitoring for enforcement where the people affected by the rights violations in-question are at the center of the process?   What has been learned with these processes? The question now is how to expand the political will and power to catalyze this approach and this level of investment in human rights throughout the far too many industries still rife with savage abuses today.

Catherine Albisa
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