Wal-Mart signs deal with farmworker program that fights harassment

One of the most effective programs to curb sexual harassment and assault in the agriculture fields expands today with the inking of a national contract with Wal-Mart.

The company, the world's largest retailer, becomes the 12th buyer to participate in the Fair Food Program, joining businesses such as Whole Foods Market, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Trader Joe’s.

Under the Fair Food Program, restaurant chains and grocery stores agree to pay a penny more per pound for Florida tomatoes.

In exchange, they buy only from growers who’ve agreed to a strict code of conduct that includes increased pay and labor protections. About 90 percent of Florida’s tomato growers now participate in the program.

Sexual harassment and assault of farmworkers is a persistent problem in American fields and packing houses, according to a yearlong investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting in conjunction with the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Frontline, Univision and KQED-FM.

The investigation featured Fair Food as one attempt to combat the problem.

The program has been looking to expand. Following two years of negotiations, the Fair Food Program signed a contract today with Wal-Mart to distribute Florida tomatoes produced under Fair Food conditions.

Under the new agreement, Wal-Mart also will work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which founded the program, to expand Fair Food to non-Florida growers during the summer harvest season and to broaden the program to other crops.

The announcement comes a day after the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Wal-Mart alleging that the company disciplined workers who protested wages and working conditions.

Under Fair Food’s code of conduct, harassers face tough consequences enforced by an independent council.

Employees found by the council to have committed acts of sexual harassment involving physical contact must be fired immediately. They can’t work at Fair Food farms for at least two seasons. A second offense results in a lifetime ban from participating farms.

Last year, a Fair Food investigation confirmed that a crew leader had stalked and harassed female workers by going into their bedrooms in a farm labor camp while they slept. He was fired.

Growers who don’t follow the code can get banned from selling to places like McDonald’s and Taco Bell for at least three months. Ongoing failure to impose sanctions for labor violations means farms are suspended from the program.

To ensure that farms are adhering to the code of conduct, growers must provide sexual harassment training and undergo regular external audits of work conditions.

Since the program launched its code of conduct in November 2011, 304 workers have brought labor complaints to the program, 60 audits have been conducted and 4,000 workers have been interviewed to make sure that growers are following the code. More than 14,000 workers have received education on topics such as reporting and preventing sexual harassment.

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