Friday, August 12, 2016, UMASS Amherst

By Elizabeth Henderson and Louis H. Battalen

The Northeast Gathering on Domestic Fair Trade, held during NOFA’s Summer Conference, was a great chance to renew networking from last summer’s Gathering and to engage in a multi-stakeholder assessment of current programs that aim to improve conditions for farmworkers.  Participants included farmers, farmworkers, advocates for both groups, not-for-profit and coop staffers, and academics studying the issues. The major focus of the meeting identified various certification and worker models and explored ways to strengthen the movement through collaboration and mutual support. An intensive go-around of introductions of attendees and their work, provided the space and time to engage full participation by all attendees and served as a preface to the presentations on the various certification and standards approaches and to domestic fair trade.

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Alyssa Bauer, Audi Gonzalez, Jess Culley, Gabriella della Croce, Martin Dagoberto, Diana Robinson, Gideon Burdick and David Arnold at the August 12 gathering

Following a warm welcoming greeting by NOFA Domestic Fair Trade Committee member Louis Battalen, Elizabeth Henderson, organic farmer and NOFA-NY Board member, gave context to the morning’s proceedings with her introductory remarks, suggesting that because it is still in its infancy, domestic fair trade in the Northeast is a history yet to be written.  The people who are working for change, she said, are “making the path as we go forward.” (The power point slides from this presentation are available upon request.) As an organic farmer who has been involved with organic certification for decades, Liz has observed that there is general agreement in this country and abroad on what organic certification covers but no such understanding exists for ‘fair trade.’

Liz cited the Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA), of which NOFA is a founding member, as an important development in the domestic fair trade story. The DFTA came into existence in 2008 desiring to reach consensus in the movement on what fair trade and social justice market claims should look like and secondly to serve as a watchdog for both the movement and the public to hold certification programs and businesses accountable to that high standard by evaluating fair trade claims in the marketplace.  NOFA’s work falls neatly into many of the DFTA principles, particularly its emphasis on farmers and homesteaders using organic methods and creating fair markets, making it possible for family-scale farms along with the workers on those farms to survive in an unfair economy, one reason, Liz said, that many NOFA members, including herself, have put a lot of energy into Community Supported Agriculture and other forms of direct marketing.

In its membership application and in ensuing detailed annual self-evaluations, DFTA members, including NOFA, assess their work based on DFTA’s 16 Principles. The seven NOFA state chapters are consistently very strong, Liz said, on respect and inclusion of family-scale farms and weakest on work for indigenous peoples’ rights.  Other questions of mutual concern that both the DFTA and NOFA think about and discuss include how inclusive should fair trade be? is fair trade a niche or a revolution? and how important is the class divide within the organic family?

In its 2013 survey of some 300 northeast organic farms, the NOFA Domestic Fair Trade Committee found that despite the high principles of organic farmers and a desire to be fair to workers, farmers pay workers modestly, providing mainly those benefits required by law.  As such, the organic movement confronts a very challenging equation – how to balance the values and needs of organic farmers with the needs of farm workers while trying to ensure that nutritious food is available and affordable? Due to consolidation of ever bigger and fewer entities, the farmer’s share of the food dollar has been decreasing steadily.  Farmers in the first ten years of farming are often making less per hour than the people working for them, most of whom, Liz said, are not doing very well laboring in a food system where a gaping race and gender wage gap prevails. The current approaches to farm worker organizing include unionization – UFW, FLOC, CATA, Familias Unidas por la Justicia; worker social responsibility targeting the big brands for pressure down the supply chain – CIW and Migrant Justice; voluntary fair trade certification programs – AJP, IMO and Fair Trade USA; and retail support for improving worker conditions to improve food safety – the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), a joint project of UFW and environmental groups with Oxfam support.

 

In her presentation about the DFTA, its director, Erika Inwald, identified the ultimate goals of the organization as environmental sustainability and labor fairness. Members use various methods to achieve these goals, she said – creating high-bar standards, evaluating the certification standards of fair trade programs, organizing work on labor and environment policy, and conducting and supporting boycotts of operations and products when appropriate. There are five sectors in its membership (retailers, farmers, farmworkers, processers, advocacy), and the board consists of two members from each sector, with one at large member. One of the goals identified in this year’s strategic planning process is to further the connection of the sectors.   Louis Battalen, the organization’s most recent Evaluator for its Fair Facts Program, explained that by evaluating fair trade market claims consumers would be able to better perceive the differences; be able to recognize strong and legitimate programs; the programs would perhaps feel compelled to raise their standards in accordance with the DFTA’s high standards; and collaboration among these programs could be facilitated. The hope, he said, was that such efforts will contribute to lasting change in the market place with benefits to farmers, workers, and mission-driven businesses.  The complete evaluations can be found at the program’s website, http://fairfacts.thedfta.org/

Cathy Albisa, the Director of the New York-based National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), discussed the Worker Social Responsibility model, a worker-driven approach that emerged during the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) campaign to ensure and protect the human rights of farm workers in the Florida tomato plantations. Workers are the driving force of this model, she said, creating and designing the workplace standards, and are the ones who have struggled to convince the retailers and restaurant chains to sign on. Workers are also the body who monitor and enforce these codes. “It cannot be a multi-stakeholder model in its creation because the power relationships are so screwed up.” Albisa contended. “You have to realign those relationships before you can have a truly multi-stakeholder participation. Realignment will not happen voluntarily.”  Workers take on a proprietary responsibility through knowing their rights and learning how, alongside a third party auditing body, to monitor complaint resolution mechanisms. Buyers are required to pay a price premium, similar to the international fair trade premium concept.  When instances of non compliance by the buyers are not immediately rectified, contract cancellations can result. “When you put the monitor under the authority of the worker organization,” Albisa said, “you shift power; it is a power to compel the corporation to do what is necessary.  Disrupting sales is incredibly effective. Corrective action is very compelling if an organization is worried about image.”

Albisa’s organization is presently working with the Vermont-based Migrant Justice in its Milk With Dignity Campaign to engage the Ben & Jerry’s Corporation which relies on Vermont’s dairy farms for a significant portion of its sourced milk to commit to assuring that the 1,200 to 1,500 migrant farm workers on Vermont dairy farms will have their fundamental human rights guaranteed and will also be treated in accordance with all state laws, including minimum wage and housing. Marita Carudo, an organizer with Migrant Justice, explained that the dairy workers, mainly from Guatemala and Mexico, are not just struggling for their rights as workers. “We are organizing ourselves to have a voice in the industry – to have a voice representing the work we do in creating Vermont’s famous products.”

The Milk With Dignity Campaign follows on two previous successful campaigns specific to immigrant life in Vermont caused by the isolation of Vermont’s rural mountainous geography. The first campaign focused on freedom of movement and access to transportation and resulted in Vermont passing a bill to allow undocumented people to have drivers’ licenses. The second campaign resulted in a state-wide change in racial profiling policies by police.
A survey conducted by Migrant Justice had revealed that 40% of dairy farmworkers were receiving no days off in a work week that averages 60 – 80 hours and where 29% of them worked more than a seven-hour day without any breaks.  It is under such conditions, Carudo explained, that the workers define their goal in terms of “securing the human right to work with dignity,” recognizing that the model for solutions demands that the workers themselves must be the instigators for designing such changes. They have chosen the Coalition of Immokalee Workers model and are now, with the assistance of NESRI, negotiating with Ben & Jerry’s on crafting a contract that will include third party monitoring, a farmworker-authored code of conduct, and economic relief through premiums paid to participating farmers.

Jessica Culley and Elizabeth Henderson presented the fair trade certification program created by the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP). They believe that CIW, EFI and AJP could be complementary programs.  As a voluntary program, AJP is trying to create an alternative based on people of good faith making the best choices for the people on their farms. For family-scale organic farms, it is imperative for the functioning of the whole farm that relations between the farmers and people they hire be friendly since most often, they work side by side. CATA, involved with AJP since its inception, thought it necessary to go beyond the “lip service to workers rights” that they believed many in the sustainable agriculture movement were giving, believing, instead, that for a farm to make the claim of fairness, a strong verification system, audited in part by farm workers themselves, was necessary. Thus, AJP’s fair labor standards were created with farmworker input, and, to date, six grassroots worker organizations have been trained to conduct farm inspections.

Presentations also included brief reports on local activities in the host Pioneer Valley area. The Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center (PVWC), according to its director Rose Bookbinder, is working with low-wage and immigrant workers employing strategies and campaigns that are worker-driven, which as of late have included educational outreach, coalition building, and efforts to pass wage theft ordinances in Amherst and Northampton, MA and an unsuccessful hotel union organizing drive.

Alyssa Bauer, who works on the Old Friends Farm in Amherst, talked about the Agrarian Action Network, a nascent farm worker group which has developed connections in the Latino community in Turners Falls, “broadening the connections across racial and class boundaries.” The Network also reached out to the PVWC when it offered a ‘Know Your Rights’ training on two separate occasions conducting the program with simultaneous Spanish and English translation. A rideshare program has also been created. An on-going discussion has centered on “how it’s hard for everyone to find a future in farm work,” whether farm workers are recent immigrants or citizens.

These concerns were reiterated at the gathering by Audi Gonzales, a Guatemalan immigrant, now part of the group of farm workers residing in Turners Falls. “Getting around has been very difficult,” said Audi; “my husband has been stopped by the authorities many times. He works long hours without a break – picking squash, cucumbers, cabbage, and packing corn. 5:30 AM to 11:00pm, lunch for 20 minutes. Farm work is very difficult. Rent is high. We only work six months of the year, and have to figure out how to pay rent in the winter. I love to work on the farm, and I love to be in this country. We are here fighting for our rights and a better future for our children.”

In the discussion that followed, participants wrestled with how to balance farm worker and farmer needs. Both groups are under similar economic pressures. In conventional dairy this year, farmers are operating at a loss even before the farmers pay themselves. Dairy farmers in Vermont are losing $4 per hundredweight of milk while huge profits continue to be made in the corporate food industry. An approach, articulated by a representative of the food distributor Red Tomato, is to try to bring everyone to the table in an effort to achieve a price premium despite the slim margins and downward pressures on food prices. Jessica of CATA pointed out that building power has to stem from collective interests, unorganized workers can only represent individual interests. A promising solution would be to reinstitute price floors (the old parity system) that provide a sort of minimum wage for farm prices at the same time as a higher minimum wage for farm workers.  Although the focus shifted to the next Farm Bill and the need to expand the National Labor Relations Act to include farm workers, as well as pressing for immigration reform based on human rights, the tenor of the discussion continued to emphasize a solution where the barriers between farmers and farm workers must be broken down in order for sustainable long-term interests to be successfully achieved.

Louis closed the meeting with appreciation for all who came and their contributions, and the group was urged to attend the NESAWG meeting on November 10 – 12 in Hartford, CT where the next opportunity for domestic fair trade networking in the northeast can happen.

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