The founders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) were honored this year, with a Leadership in Civil Society award from the Clinton Global Initiative at its annual meeting in New York City.
According to their website, “The Clinton Global Citizen Awards embody President Bill Clinton’s call to action by honoring outstanding individuals who exemplify global citizenship through their vision and leadership. These citizens have proven that diverse sectors of society can work together successfully to devise solutions that effect positive, lasting social change.”
Greg Asbed and Lucas Benitez helped found Florida-based CIW in 1993. Since then, CIW has grown from a small group of workers meeting in a borrowed room of a local church, to an internationally recognized “worker-based human rights organization” that has achieved progress in corporate social responsibility, community organizing, and sustainable food.
CIW has attracted attention for their landmark successes within the Florida tomato industry. Through progressive activism campaigns beginning in 1998, CIW has succeeded in raising the wages of tomato farm workers and improving working conditions. In 2010 the Fair Food Program (FFP) secured a premium of one U.S. cent added to the earnings of every pound that agricultural workers produced. This may not sound like a lot, but it resulted in additional income of US$14 million by May of 2014. Walmart, Burger King, and Whole Foods Market are among the private companies who have agreed to pay the premium and support better wages.
The CIW sees this recognition as a major victory for workers’ rights as it marks an important step in a decades long struggle full of many challenges and setbacks. According to co-founder and farmworker Lucas Benitez, “In these communities, horrific tragedies and instances of dehumanizing abuse have darkened the headlines over and over again: unsafe factories, workers forced to labor against their will, a culture of sexual harassment, and violence without redress.” However, co-founder Greg Asbed notes, “the CGI Global Citizenship Award will surely provide an incomparable boost to our efforts to establish this important breakthrough as the gold standard for the protection and expansion of fundamental human rights.”
President Clinton had even more to add in his closing remarks. “I want to close by saying the most astonishing thing politically in the world we’re living in today is our Immokalee honorees. We heard our first speaker say that 20 years ago he was an 18 year-old farmworker. The idea that 20 years later, you could have gotten the biggest companies in the world to agree to use their market power to clean up the labor conditions, to raise the wages to decent wages. You know, all over the world there are people just like you that are 18, who think that their only option is to pick up a gun or a bomb, and you proved them wrong.”