Profile of leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

“Greg Asbed has spent much of his life fighting horrific labor abuses, including slavery. An organizer and human rights strategist, he co-founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group that pioneered a system for overcoming brutal conditions in American agriculture. Last week, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Mr. Asbed a genius grant.”

Thus starts an article in the NY Times on an interview with him. The following are excerpts:

“Mr. Asbed’s group, based in Immokalee, Fla., the state’s tomato capital, has reached agreements with Walmart, McDonald’s and a dozen other major buyers of farm products to take part in its Fair Food Program. The companies pay a small premium for each unit of crop they purchase, sometimes referred to in shorthand as a “penny per pound,” and the growers agree to abide by a code of conduct on issues like worker safety and pay, which the premium funds.

Asbed said, “I’m a first-generation Armenian-American. My grandmother moved to Syria from Turkey, but not of her own volition. There was the Armenian genocide; she lost her whole family except for one sister. She managed to survive the genocide by being bought and sold twice by the age of 13 — once to the Kurds, then by the Kurds to an Armenian family, which was my grandfather’s family. I have always felt a certain responsibility, as a bearer of DNA that was forged in the crucible of genocide, to the idea of universal human rights.

I went to Haiti after school and worked for three years with a peasant movement that was trying to build democracy.

My wife was working with farmworkers in Pennsylvania, and she got involved with some Haitian workers who were facing some pretty horrible conditions. They needed a translator, so I got involved. That was the first time I’d actually learned about what happened just beneath the surface of our food system. And it was pretty eye-opening.

There was an opening in Immokalee at the legal services office. We worked in the community down here from 1991 on.

As you started to pull at the thread, became massive — hundreds of people, up and down the East Coast working in forced labor and in unimaginable conditions. That was the extreme — slavery, modern-day forced labor — but generational grinding poverty, and pretty unconscionable labor abuse, was the norm.

It wasn’t something that we could confront face to face. It was actually at the top of the food system. There were these massive fast-food chains and supermarket chains that had an unprecedented level of market power over their suppliers.

So we realized we were going to have to take the conditions that we saw and confront those corporations with those conditions.

Taco Bell’s target market was 18 to 24-year-olds. And 18 to 24-year-olds are people who still believe in justice, still believe change is possible. Students organized what was called the “Boot the Bell” campaign. So they signed to pay the premium and to only buy from growers who comply with the code. That was in 2005. It took four years.

The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange was dead-set against it. There were actually a couple of farms that agreed to sell to Taco Bell, to pass on the “penny per pound.” The F.T.G.E. said that any of its members who participated in the Fair Food Program would be hit with remarkably large fines. Growers stopped participating.

What we did during that time was continue on two fronts. One was continuing to get more and more companies to sign Fair Food agreements, even if the program was halted. That included McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway. On a parallel track, we continued our antislavery work. More and more cases were taken to court, working with federal authorities, and more and more crew leaders were put behind bars. The names of a couple of farms where those workers were came out on the court record.

If we could stop campaigning today and dedicate all our resources to building the program out, extending its protections to tens of thousands more workers, we would prefer that infinitely to having to campaign to get companies to join. Unfortunately, we’re forced to continue campaigning. Some have shifted purchases to places where sexual violence against women is endemic.”

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