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Delegates from U.N. visit Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Apr. 26, 2013
Worker Lucas Benitez, left, talks to U.N. delegate Michael Addo.
Worker Lucas Benitez, left, talks to U.N. delegate Michael Addo. / Amy Bennett Williams/

Two members of a United Nations delegation traveled to Immokalee on Friday to spend time with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The two-day visit is part of a broader trip to the U.S. to see how U.N guiding principles on human rights and business are faring.

The grassroots coalition has been lauded for its and worker rights efforts, including its Campaign for Fair Food, which is modernizing working conditions in Florida’s fields while improving wages for tomato workers, among the lowest-paid in the nation.

Earlier this month at a White House ceremony, the group’s anti-slavery work was called the “spark that ignited a movement” at the first-ever White House Forum to Combat Human Trafficking. The Fair Food program was singled out as one of the most successful and innovative programs in the fight to uncover and prevent modern-day slavery, a fight President Barack Obama called “one of the great human rights causes of our time.”

Human rights were the focus Friday, as delegation members Michael Addo and Margaret Jungk took a morning walking tour through the town. Afterward, they visited with tomato growers and coalition members alike, pausing at the group’s headquarters for a homemade lunch of chicken in mole sauce and handmade tortillas. As they ate, they watched excerpts from a new training film that explains workers’ rights and employers’ responsibilities.

Addo and Jungk are part of the U.N. Working Group on Business and Human Rights, which is independent of any government or organization and reports to the U.N.’s human rights council and general assembly.

The delegates — one of two U.N. groups currently touring the nation — learned about the Fair Food program, which gives workers a penny-per-pound raise that comes not from growers, but from the growers’ customers: corporate tomato buyers. Those include the world’s major fast-food companies, institutional food services and specialty grocers Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, who reported collectively paying out $7 million in premiums last season.

The program also improves working conditions for the people who pick tomatoes in Florida, where much of the nation’s fresh tomato crop grows. The Fair Food Program calls for a cooperative complaint resolution system, a health and safety program, and worker-to-worker education in addition to the raise, which could mean an increase from about $10,000 to about $17,000 a year.

“It’s fascinating to see how they’ve faced these challenges,” Addo said. “And how well it seems to be working.”

Jungk said she was impressed with the group’s energy and innovations. “It’s great to see the creativity around this problem.”

On Wednesday, the delegates will hold a Washington, D.C. press conference on their preliminary observations from the visit. Their recommendations will be included in an official report to be presented to the Human Rights Council in 2014.

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