Florida Banned Heat Protections. This Partnership Offers a Solution. | Civil Eats

Florida Banned Farmworker Heat Protections. A Groundbreaking Partnership Offers a Solution.

In this week’s Field Report, the Fair Food Program offers the strongest, legally binding protocols to keep people safe when politicians fall short, plus new organic standards and efforts to increase access to farm loans.

Farmworkers clear out irrigation for an okra field near Coachella, California. (Photo credit: Mario Tama, Getty Images)

April 15, 2024 update: Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill late last week that would ban heat protections for workers. The headline of this article has been updated to reflect the bill’s implementation.

Earlier this month, Florida’s Senate passed a bill banning local jurisdictions from passing measures protecting workers from heat exposure, the latest of a series of draconian laws targeting immigrants and workers in Florida. This bill, which awaits the approval of governor Ron DeSantis, prohibits governments from requiring that employers provide water, shade, and breaks to workers—relatively small measures that can mean the difference between life and death for workers laboring under Florida’s hot sun. This law precedes what is expected to be another record-breaking summer of extreme heat.

“It’s morally repulsive, and it will kill farmworkers,” said Erik Nicholson, a farmworker advocate and the former vice president of United Farm Workers. “I have accompanied the families of too many farmworkers who have needlessly died due to heat stress.”

But Nicholson also highlighted the promise of another avenue to bring strong heat standards to Florida farms: The Fair Food Program (FFP), a groundbreaking partnership between retailers, farmers, and farmworkers that has implemented the strongest, legally binding heat protocols in the nation on Florida’s farms, while bypassing the state’s Republican-controlled legislature.

Originating in Florida’s tomato industry, the program now operates across eleven states and four countries. With the support of a new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) award, it is anticipated to expand this year to protect farmworkers in 25 states.

“We as workers can’t afford to wait for the Florida legislature to find its conscience,” said Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a former farmworker and organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, in a statement. “That’s why we are focused on our partnership with many of the state’s largest growers and on expanding the Fair Food Program.”

“We as workers can’t afford to wait for the Florida legislature to find its conscience. That’s why we are focused on our partnership with many of the state’s largest growers and on expanding the Fair Food Program.”

The FFP was established in 2011 by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a worker-based human rights organization with a long history of community-based farmworker organizing in Florida. The program is a unique partnership between farmers, farmworkers, and 14 major food retailers—including Subway, Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Walmart, and Taco Bell—that guarantees a set of legally binding farmworker protections for heat and other workplace conditions, which were drafted by workers. An independent, trilingual council operates a 24/7 worker complaint line and audits the participating farms.

“[Farmworkers in the FFP] don’t feel pressure to keep working under conditions that are placing their lives and their health at risk. And that’s fundamentally different from what happens outside of the program,” said Chavez.

Between April and November, Florida’s hottest months, the program’s heat protocol mandates shade on fields, water with electrolytes, and a rest break every two hours. The addition of electrolytes, explained Chavez, was based on “scientific research about the need to incorporate those so that workers can be protected long term in regards to kidney failure.”

Farmworkers sit underneath shade structures in Georgia. (Photo courtesy of the Fair Food Program)

Farmworkers sit underneath shade structures in Georgia. (Photo courtesy of the Fair Food Program)

The shade is provided by a portable structure attached to a pick-up truck that accompanies workers as they move through the field, he said. Whenever workers need to take a break, the shade structure is nearby. Crew leaders also monitor for signs of heat illness, trained to especially look out for new farmworkers still acclimating to the temperature.

And if a worker does develop symptoms of heat illness, they have the right to stop working and take a break or receive medical attention if necessary. The federal government and state of Florida do not mandate any of these worker protections, which means that participating farms have heat protocols that surpass any regulatory requirements.

Currently, only a handful of states—Washington, California, Oregon, and Colorado—have passed heat protections that extend to outdoor workers. In October 2021, the Biden Administration’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) initiated a rulemaking process to develop a federal standard to regulate heat exposure. Yet, after over two years, the regulation has yet to be finalized as global temperatures tick upwards.

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“It’s been a pretty substantial amount of time for OSHA not to have actually created a regulation for heat stress,” said Laurie Beyranevand, the director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School. “In the absence of federal regulation, people are concerned about the health of farmworkers.”

If the standard isn’t finalized by 2025, she adds, another Trump Administration would be in a position to keep the heat standard pending without ever finalizing it, deferring a promise that farmworkers and advocates have long fought to establish for decades.

Last week, Xavier Becerra, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, launched a project in which federal health leaders commit to better protect farmworkers from heat and smoke. In the past, the agency has recommended that OSHA finalize standards.

The FFP, however, offers a more immediate avenue of protection for retailers who are willing to come to the table and collaborate with farmworkers and farmers. Beyond concern for the health of farmworkers, major retailers are incentivized to join the program because it guarantees a level of transparency in their supply chain, eliminating the social liability of contracting with farms rife with labor abuse. And farmers sign onto the agreement because it gives them preferential purchasing from the major purchasers, while also ensuring that their workplace practices are ethical and often helping retain employees.

A Fair Food Program auditor speaks to a farmworker in a tomato field. (Photo courtesy of the Fair Food Program)

A Fair Food Program auditor speaks to a farmworker in a tomato field. (Photo courtesy of the Fair Food Program)

“[The Fair Food Program] is not designed to magically erase the problems and risks of harm. It is designed to respond appropriately, and by doing so in a really effective way, reduce the amount and the types of abuse that take place,” said Chavez. “In the case of a heat illness, it’s the most powerful tool that there is in the country.”

FFP has been quickly expanding beyond Florida’s tomato fields to operate across many crops: flowers, sweet potatoes, onions, corn, peaches, melons, and squash. The program recently added international farms that grow flowers in southern Chile, South Africa, and Mexico, with support from the Department of Labor. The USDA also recently launched a pilot to support farms in addressing labor abuses, recognizing the worker-driven social responsibility model as a pathway for achieving the highest human rights standards. This development has incentivized more farms to join the FFP, Chavez said. Based on the applications submitted so far, it could lead to the program launching in as many as 15 new states.

This model pioneered by FFP, known as Worker-Driven Social Responsibility, has been adopted by other industries long plagued by abuse. It inspired Bangladesh’s garment industry to form a similar partnership between brands and trade unions, protecting over 2 million factory workers with a legally binding accord. A similar program, known as Milk with Dignity, has been adopted by Vermont’s dairy industry. The United Kingdom’s fishing industry has been in conversation with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as they build their own version of this model.

“We see this as the blueprint for workers in other realities,” said Chavez. Even after Florida’s move to ban heat protections, he remains hopeful about the promise of this model to support workers when the government fails. “We are in a great moment in history where there is a cure for many of the abuses that have plagued not just our work but many industries.”

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Read More:
The Struggle for Food Sovereignty in Immokalee, Florida
The Heat Wave Crushing the West is a Preview of Farmworkers’ Hot Future
As the Climate Emergency Grows, Farmworkers Lack Protection from Deadly Heat

Barriers to Accessing Federal Loans Persist. There is a long history of the USDA selectively approving loans to U.S. farms at their discretion, resulting in the well-documented denial of loans to Black farmers, a pattern that has pushed farmers off their land. This pattern of “broad discretion” continues into today and can “allow for agency bias and discrimination,” according to a new analysis by Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law and Graduate School with partners Farm Aid and the Rural Advancement Foundation International. The researchers also found the USDA tends to “err more frequently when processing loan applications for farm operations that differ from the ‘traditional’ commodity farms,” imposing a barrier to farmers engaged in innovative and climate-friendly practices. On top of this, it’s also harder for smaller-scale farmers, unable to afford high legal fees, to appeal a loan denial.

Read more:
Farm Credit Can Make or Break Farms. Should It Be More Equitable?
This Group Has Helped Farmworkers Become Farm Owners for More than 2 Decades

New Organic Standards. New regulations within the USDA’s  National Organic Program will become enforceable on March 20, reflecting the most sweeping update to the program since 1990. The update is largely aimed at stopping organic fraud, by increasing transparency and oversight of imports and of the organic rules in operation on farms. While most organic advocates support the reforms as necessary to maintain the integrity of the organic seal, some say small farms may struggle with the record-keeping requirements. “Organic recordkeeping is already extensive,” Kate Mendenhall, who directs the Organic Farmers Association, told Food Dive last month. “We will likely lose small and mid-size organic farmers from the program if we do not address this issue.”

Read More:
USDA Moves Forward With Sweeping Plan to Prevent Fraud in Organic
The Field Report: The Future of Organic Food Is Taking Shape at the USDA—and Beyond What is the Future of Organic?

Grey Moran is a Staff Reporter for Civil Eats. Their work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Grey writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. They live in New Orleans. Read more >

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