Can philanthropy support the transformation of society?


Alliance magazine


Can philanthropy be more than a smile on the face of inequality? Two of America’s leading philanthropists say “yes.”

When was the last time you ate a tomato? Recently, we’d guess, since tomatoes are ubiquitous in most people’s diets. But did you stop to consider who picked it for you, and under what conditions, and what it cost in human terms?

Tomatoes are a $600 million a year industry in the state of Florida alone, bought in vast quantities by food giants including Wal-Mart, Taco Bell and McDonalds.

Yet the working conditions of the women and men who pick them – mostly migrant workers – have been riddled with exploitation, violence, sexual harassment and abuse for decades. On average, full-time workers pick 150 30-pound buckets of tomatoes every day, and earn about $11,000 a year in return.

Today, however, the tomato industry is undergoing unprecedented change. Growers, pickers and corporations are negotiating to clean up these abuses by ensuring better working conditions and fairer wages.

Philanthropy has played a part in this story – not the most important one, which belongs to the workers themselves, but not insignificant either. By supporting people to organize themselves, defend their rights and make their own decisions, we believe that philanthropy can play a role in the transformation of society.

The small town of Immokalee in Florida used to be a swamp (Immokalee means “my home” in the Seminole Indian language). Then the swamp was drained, and over time agriculture became the most important industry, centered on tomatoes. Immokalee is only a few miles away from the affluent ocean-coast retirement communities of Naples and Fort Lauderdale, where some of the town’s produce ends up in high-priced hamburgers and salads.

Immokalee is also home to a community-based, human rights organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (or CIW), which has worked tirelessly to change inhumane working conditions by educating and organizing agricultural workers. The CIW has also focused critical attention on large purchasers like Wal-Mart, who until recently looked the other way.

In 1960, CBS News anchor Edward R. Murrow reported on working conditions in the area for his “Harvest of Shame” report, which described the harsh lives of migrant workers. Today, this is all changing due to the CIW’s Fair Food Program.

On a visit to Immokalee in January, 2014, we stood in the parking lot where the workers waited to be picked up in the early morning hours. The Coalition had provided us with a guide who described a pivotal moment in the struggle for workers’ rights.

“Many years of diligent, strategic hard work and organizing bring us to today,” he told us, “when Wal-Mart executives, produce-growers and migrant farm workers can sit down together, look one another in the eye as fellow human beings, shake hands and agree to work to end gross exploitation and harmful conditions in the produce supply chain.”

Wal-Mart, America’s largest retailer, had just signed on to the Fair Food Program, which had been initiated by the CIW in 2001.  Grassroots pressure had already persuaded fast-food chains like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King and Subway to agree to a price premium for their tomatoes, and to adhere to a binding commitment to safe working conditions, and zero tolerance for forced labor, child labor, sexual harassment and violence.

According to Susan Marquis, Dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, “the Fair Food Program, unlike most social-responsibility programs, is fully enforced and, as a result, has had real, measurable effects. Accountability comes from formal audits conducted by the Fair Food Standards Council, a nongovernmental, independent, third party, as well as a manned 24-hour complaint hotline.”

So far so good, but where does philanthropy enter this story?

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Jennifer Buffett and Peter Buffett.

This post first appeared on Transformation, the blog of OpenDemocracy.

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