In Person: Greg Asbed, winner of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, has won better treatment for thousands of agricultural workers by putting consumer pressure on big fast-food companies like Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway to cut off abusive farm employers.
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. This month the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Asbed one of 24 annual fellowships, known colloquially as a “genius grant,” to support his work in this area.
Asbed’s group, based in Immokalee, Florida, 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.
In 2014, Susan Marquis, dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, California, said that “when I first visited Immokalee, I heard appalling stories of abuse and modern slavery.” She added: “But now the tomato fields in Immokalee are probably the best working environment in American agriculture. In the past three years, they’ve gone from being the worst to the best.”
In a telephone interview, Asbed, 54, said he planned to plow the entire $625,000 grant back into the coalition and emphasized that the group’s achievements came through the efforts of thousands of people. Below is an edited and condensed version of our discussion. He talked about the roots of his life’s work, his approach to gains for migrant workers and the road ahead.
Q: What was your path to this work?
A: 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. There was a remarkable effort by peasant organizations in the countryside, by unions in the cities, to mobilize a population that had never voted in a real election. I got to be a part of that process.
I learned Creole and came back to the States. Then a couple years later, 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.
Q: How did you end up in Florida?
A: There was an opening in Immokalee at the legal services office. We worked in the community down here from 1991 on.
Q: What do you find? How quickly does the picture start to fill in for you?
A: About as soon as you get to town. It was a very harsh, dog-eat-dog kind of world. You would regularly see people getting beaten in the parking lot on payday, by the crew leader or the crew leader’s henchmen, because they complained about not getting paid. Nobody would come to their defense.
Q: Was it clear that some people were essentially slaves, being forced to work against their will?
A: We were doing simple outreach up in labor camps in South Carolina, and we came across people who said: “Can you help us get our pay? We didn’t get our final paycheck at the last place we were working.”
That happens a lot. So we said, “Sure, where were you working, and why didn’t you get that paycheck?”
“We had to take off a night because the police came” — because the crew leader had shot another worker who was telling workers in the camp that they didn’t have to work against their will, that they were free to work wherever they wanted.
So this wage complaint, 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.
Q: When did you start figuring out how you’re really going to root this out systemically?
A: We gradually realized the power that set the parameters for farmworker poverty and the inhumane working conditions in the field didn’t reside here in Immokalee. 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 they could demand lower and lower prices.
So we realized if we were actually ever going to have the ability to improve workers’ lives in a meaningful way, we were going to have to take the conditions that we saw and confront those corporations with those conditions.
Q: Can you tell me about the Taco Bell campaign, which was the seminal campaign that showed you it was possible to do this?
A: 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. At some campuses, Taco Bells were either removed or blocked from starting business, and I think that helped create a lot of pressure.
Eventually, to its credit, Taco Bell was the first to step up and say, “There are problems in agriculture, and we’re going to work with the coalition to fix them.” 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.
Q: What’s at the top of your priority list now?
A: Frankly, 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.
I ask people to think of themselves at a farm stand with beautiful fruits and vegetables. When I ask people what they would do if they looked over the cashier’s shoulder and saw a woman being sexually assaulted in the crew leader’s truck, invariably, every single one says: “I would never buy that fruit. I would do what I can to stop what’s happening.” Yet somehow when human beings come together to work as a corporation, the collective tolerance for outrageous abuse increases exponentially. That is what I can’t understand.