The Coalition of Immokalee Workers first attempts at changing an abusive system included short-lived strikes and protests. But for many workers, withholding from work for any significant amount of time was impossible. To really make an impact, they needed a clever strategy.
For years, complaining and protesting the growers was unsuccessful, the Coalition thought it was time to put pressure on the stop of the supply chain. Large corporations like Taco Bell and Wal-Mart.
They believed that since these corporations were demanding even lower prices for tomatoes and other vegetables, growers were also forced to cut corners. This ultimately led to deteriorating working conditions for the farm workers.
The Coalition knew it needed a solid backer. It needed angry consumers. Enter: an increasing population of food-conscious individuals.
In 2011, the Coalition launched its Fair Food Program. Their first campaign focused on one of the tomato industry's biggest buyers: Taco Bell.
Armed with "Taco Bell Makes Farmworkers Poor" signs, they started gaining the attention of consumers.
The program is simple: large corporate buyers that sign onto the Fair Foods Program must pay a penny more per pound, which is then distributed to the workers in the form of a line item “bonus” on their paycheck. A strategy that Coalition says helps prevent low and stagnant wages.
From 2011-2015, , more than $16 million in Fair Food premiums were paid into the program.
The buyers who sign onto the program can contractually only buy from farms that deploy a Fair Foods Program Code of Conduct, which has strict consequences for sexual assault, wage theft and force labor. The code of conduct also calls for safe working conditions—like growers must provide water and shade on the fields—both of which are not required by the law.
“Once we move past exposing the problem and surfacing the abuses and the abusers, we have to think about ways to get beyond that,” said Judge Laura Espinoza, the executive director of the Fair Foods Standards Council, the monitoring arm of the Fair Foods Program.
One of the reasons the program has worked is because the workers themselves, as opposed to an outside agency, drafted the Code of Conduct.
The reason is because only workers know the abuse they face and the subtle ways growers have stolen wages.
One example is the requirement of workers to "cup" their buckets of tomatoes, or pile their tomatoes past the rim, resembling an ice cream cone. Failure to cup meant you lost credit for the entire bucket.
When filled to the rim, tomato buckets add up to about 32 pounds. When cupped, about 36 pounds. For every 10 buckets, workers were actually picking 11 buckets worth. Discreet wage theft.
Photo from the "Know Your Rights and Responsibilities" education booklet given out at farms participating in the Fair Foods Program.
When crafting the Code of Conduct, workers added in a photo of the correct way to fill a bucket and their right to complain if forced to cup.
On farms participating in the Fair Food Program, workers are required to attend a class once a season detailing their rights and what constitutes abuse. The class is taught by other workers, attended by company supervisors, and takes place on company property on the company's dime.
During the class, workers also learn how to make reports of abuse to the 24/7 complaint line which is run by the Fair Foods Standards Council.
De la Cruz has had to use the complaint line many times. At first she was nervous. Who can blame her? The system had never been in her favor.
But once she learned her rights, she knew she needed to speak up when something went wrong.
"That's the only way to make things change," she said.
“With fair food program, that's something that you don't have to worry about because you now know your rights. You are seen as a human being and so you trust that there's something to be done.”
When a farm signs onto the Fair Food program, they open themselves up to the workers from the coalition to talk to other workers about their rights. Workers on Fair Food Farms today have the ability to report abuse without the fear of retaliation.
“So that is really your first opportunity as a worker to hear about what your rights are. To actually have someone concerned with the problems that your facing in the fields," de la Cruz said.
"That makes a huge difference because suddenly you're not just seen as a machine, but as a real person."
However, the agriculture industry is vast, and there is much work to be done. De la Cruz said it isn't uncommon for a migrant worker to spend one season on a farm in the Fair Foods Program and the next on a farm with harsh work conditions.
But, she said once workers learn their rights, they don't forget them.
“You don’t leave that knowledge behind. You take it with you.”