Farmers in Florida take fast food companies to fair trade

Farmers' struggle will mark a new achievement this month when attorney Steve Hitov receives the Gwynne Skinner Human Rights Award for defending Florida farmers, mostly Latinos, who brought fair trade to large companies such as McDonald's and Taco Bell

The last 25 years of his career, Hitov has represented the Immokalee Workers' Coalition (CIW), a human rights organization 64 kilometers from Naples, South Florida, which created the Fair Food Program (FFP), a program of fair trade considered one of the initiatives with the greatest social impact of our times.

"I'm not deceived, Immokalee workers have done much more than me," he said in an interview with Efe Hitov, who on the 24th of this month will receive the award.

"This is not recognition for my personal work, but goes with CIW and everything that has been achieved with the FFP, they have taken unimaginable risks, I have only represented them," said the American.

The FFP is a unique association between crop owners, agricultural workers and food businesses that guarantees better wages and working conditions for fruit and vegetable collectors in the participating farms.

In Immokalee, which belongs to Collier County, where that coalition was born, 90% of Florida tomatoes are produced.

When Hitov started working with farmers, Immokalee was one of the poorest villages in the country and working conditions were among the worst. But now that has improved remarkably. "When I met them the first time, I knew that they had all the reasons why I studied laws: achieve social change and represent the defenseless," says the jurist.

"I was very shocked to learn that a peasant woman had to leave her dignity at the door of the farm to be able to work, and I said: I have to help anyone to go through this," he adds.

As reported by the labor, the greatest achievement of this group emerged at a community meeting in 2000.

Someone read an article in which he said that by buying so much tomato, the big fast food chains (known in English as "fast foods") were making their price go down. And another asked: "If they can make our prices go down, can we make them go up a bit?".

That question cemented the two main bases of the program, including that large corporations commit to buy food from suppliers that conform to a "code of conduct", which covers aspects such as fair fees and safety standards.

Also that they agreed to pay one cent more for each pound of tomato, penny that would go to the workers.

A year later, the CIW organized a boycott of Taco Bell in which 22 universities from the USA participated. In 2005, Taco Bell became the first fast food giant to sign the agreement.

"Two years later, we got McDonald's to join the program, also Subway and at some point Burger King and Walmart," Hitov recalls.

"Another great step was when in 2008 Whole Foods joined, because until then only companies that put tomatoes on a hamburger or a sandwich were part of all this, but now it was a supermarket, and that took us to another level."

In order for these giants to join the program, the coalition denounces large corporations that use suppliers that do not watch over the working conditions of their workers.

First through a press release or your website, then doing marches and calling for the boycott of the company. The pressure persists until the company agrees to sign the agreement.

The coalition, however, is not as big as you might think. It is made up of a score of people representing 35,000 workers in seven states of the country.

"And look at everything you've accomplished." According to the Harvard Business Review, this is one of the most successful social impact stories of our era, "Hitov says.

But not all battles have been won. Since 2013, CIW is fighting for Wendy's, another fast-food giant, to join its program.

This month he organized a new series of protests on several university campuses where Wendy's has a presence.

In addition, only 25% of tomatoes sold in the United States. They come from their affiliates.

The life of farmers is still very hard and dangerous. In Florida they have to load buckets of over 13.6 kilos on their shoulders with high ambient temperatures.

"There have been substantial changes, but you can always improve, I would say that we are just in the process of making your work safer and less uncomfortable, but this is a project in constant progress," says Hitov.

Now, he says, it's time to take that strategy to "chili peppers in New Mexico, garlic farmers in California, take it to Bangladesh."

"Hopefully we can do it soon," Hitov longs.

Celeste Rodas de Juárez


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