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January 2017, Volume 23, Number 1

Labor Compliance and Fair Trade

Labor compliance programs use indicators and audits to ensure that producers in a supply chain abide by federal, state and local labor laws. Supervisors are educated about the laws they must obey and workers of their rights, and protocols are established to ensure compliance and to deal with complaints of violations.

Collective bargaining agreements are one form of labor compliance, since they allow unions selected by workers to negotiate CBAs with employers that establish wages and working conditions and grievance mechanisms to resolve complaints of violations. Relatively few US farm workers are covered by CBAs.

Instead of unions, some buyers of commodities have labor compliance programs that require their suppliers to abide by all labor laws. Some compliance codes go beyond legal minimums to include worker participation in management, fair prices for suppliers linked to higher wages, and sometimes require production practices such as sustainability.

The two best known farm labor-compliance programs are the Fair Food Program (FFP) of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida and the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) in California and other states. FPP emerged in southwestern Florida tomato fields in the 1990s in response to cases of labor contractors enslaving workers, and evolved into a program that requires the buyers of tomatoes to pay a premium price to growers who abide by the FFP code of conduct. The FFP covers 17 major tomato growers who may employ a peak 30,000 workers, and is spreading to other growers of other vegetables and other states.

The EFI was launched in 2012 by Oxfam America and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union with the support of Costco to encourage compliance with labor laws and food safety regulations. A key element of EFI standards is worker involvement in their formulation, training about their content, and input in implementing them. Participating growers establish leadership teams of supervisors and workers that receive at least 40 hours of training in the EFI code.

Farms participate in voluntary certification programs to "do the right thing" and to gain market advantages in the form of higher prices or access to preferred buyers who reject less produce. The three key parameters of the programs are the value of the certification to the grower, the standards that must be obeyed, and the response to audits that detect issues, such as the cost to growers to remedy violations. Most programs give growers time to correct problems detected in audits, such as firing or retraining supervisors who violate the code.

Audits play a key role to obtain and retain certification. The FFP has one of the most extensive audit programs, aiming to audit participating farms at least twice a year and interviewing half or more of the workers present. The EFI does not announce its verification audits, which result in certification for two years unless new information prompts another audit. Many other programs audit participating growers yearly.

How does an organization learn of problems between audits? The FFP educates workers about their rights and operates a hot line that workers can call to report problems, while EFI leadership teams perform similar education and complaint-receiving function. Both FFP and EFI require growers to take responsibility for workers brought to their farms by contractors.

Labor compliance programs in the garment industries of developing countries have a longer history and a mixed record of protecting workers for several reasons. First, the supplier with the contract may have a factory in full compliance, but subcontract some of the sewing work to other factories not in compliance. Second, factories often bid low prices and take the risk of violating the code because they have only one chance to win the bid to get the work, but several chances to correct violations of the code of conduct. In some cases, non-compliant factories go out of business but restart operations under different names.

Martin, Philip. 2016. Labor Compliance in Fresh Produce: Lessons from Food Safety. Choices. Lindgren, Kerstin. 2016. Justice in the Fields. Fair World Project.

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