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26 Mar 2024

Anna Canning and James Daria, Corporate Accountability Lab

Certified exploitation: How Equitable Food Initiative and Fair Trade USA fail to protect farmworkers in the Mexican produce industry

Shutterstock (licensed)

This report examines human and labor rights abuses in the agro-export enclave of Mexico’s San Quintin. Through sustained ethnographic research, this report gathers the words of workers on plantations selling to these brands, plantations which are certified “fair trade” by Fair Trade USA and “Responsibly Grown, Farmworker Assured” by the Equitable Food Initiative. These certified products are found in the supply chains of two major companies, Driscoll’s and Andrews & Williamson. The latter is less of a household name, but sells berries under the Good Farms and Heritage brands to Costco. Over two hundred interviews with workers helped shape the findings of this report, with the testimonies and perspectives shaping a narrative that belies the claims of both brands and certifiers.

Further, this research situates the workers’ words within the context of the rollout of these certifications within the fresh produce industry and current research into the ways that such multi-stakeholder initiatives fail to protect human rights.

Key findings

  • Ethical certifications are failing to address regulatory gaps through weak standards and poor enforcement. Through an in-depth examination of certification standards as well as Mexican labor law and ILO conventions, this report shows how ethical certifications fail to raise the bar for farmworkers regarding wage and hour law as well as breaks and other benefits to which they are entitled. Further, standards are routinely disregarded and poorly enforced, in part because workers are not provided with training to know their rights, either under law or in the certification standards. Thus, although both EFI and FTUSA standards prohibit them, there are widespread violations of the freedom of association and collective bargaining, sexual harassment, wage theft, and retaliation on certified farms.
  • Certifications help obscure the fundamentally exploitative dynamics of the agro-export industry. Multi-national fruit and produce companies have greatly expanded their operations in Mexico’s San Quintín Valley. Certifiers have facilitated this expansion, helping recover from the brand damage of repeat food safety incidents and labor abuse scandals. Yet these certifiers’ labels paper over the fundamentally exploitative reality: by shifting production, workers earn as much in a day as a minimum wage worker in California would earn in an hour—and certifiers enable brands to market this as “fair” and “equitable.”
  • Multi-stakeholder initiatives support corporate power and undermine worker organizing. This report closely examines the development of EFI certification in particular. While major U.S. farmworker organizations were involved with their founding, the multi-stakeholder model is not delivering the promised gains for workers. Instead, this report examines the ways that the stakeholder representation model fails to protect rights-holders (farmworkers), and undermines their organizing. Together, these certifications represent the development of parallel corporate-friendly soft law, granting employers still more power over their workers in the name of addressing labor shortages and professionalizing the workforce.
  • Joint-body committees fail to address power imbalances which drive abuses. Both EFI and FTUSA depend on their “Leadership Team” and “Fair Trade Committees” respectively to implement their programs, resolve disputes, and aid in the disbursement of premium funds. Yet testimonials from workers show that, in the case of Fair Trade Committees, workers are often not even aware of their existence. EFI’s Leadership Teams are thoroughly criticized by workers who participate as being impotent to resolve issues for workers and stacked with the bosses’ allies and family members. Instead of empowering workers, as the program claims, the impact is the opposite.
  • Workers describe indicators of forced labor on certified farms without detection. This report gathers testimony on a farm that carries dual FTUSA and EFI certification. Workers describe conditions that check off nearly every one of the ILO’s indicators of forced labor. Workers were recruited with deceptive practices, had documents and pay withheld, and were lodged in isolation in filthy conditions. This chapter also includes discussion of how both independent union organizing and outside pressure can support the resolution of such cases.
  • Despite rhetoric of “continuous improvement,” labor standards have gone down over time. An in-depth look at standards show how multi-stakeholder processes have made labor standards, and wage and hour standards in particular, lower over time. Instead of indexing wages to a number greater than the minimum wage or engaging brands to support workers’ wages, EFI standards now focus on premium payments to make up the difference. Workers on certified farms completely lack transparency in premium calculation. This section also examines the impacts of widespread systematic wage theft on workers’ earnings, a sum that far outpaces premiums.
  • Annual audits fail to uncover abuses due to major structural flaws. Workers cite several key reasons why annual audits fail to uncover abuses. On EFI certified farms, one part of the audit includes a focus-group style interview with members of the Leadership Team—the joint-body committee made up of management and workers. Workers who participate in the Leadership Team cite intimidation and fear of retaliation based on prior events as reasons that inhibit their participation. Further, workers describe pre-audit coaching by management.
  • Despite repression, independent unions are winning some concessions for workers. Company or employer unions (also called “charro” or “sindicatos blancos” in Mexico or “yellow unions”) are widespread across plantations, a violation of workers’ right to organize that is common across Mexican industry. Yet despite these unions holding the official collective bargaining agreements for workers, independent worker union SINDJA continues to support and advocate for workers. This report examines cases of SINDJA supporting strike negotiations for higher wages, raising awareness and ultimately freeing workers from conditions of forced labor, and enforcing workplace conditions. Independent unions have continually decried certifications for failing to defend their rights and serving only to “fairwash” abuses.


In the immediate term, it is time to address the failures of certifications to protect the fundamental human rights they claim to protect—indeed, as this report shows, they are not only failing at that task, they are actively undermining independent worker organizing that has much greater potential to defend those rights.

Participation in multi-stakeholder initiatives is not a proxy for direct engagement with organized workers in specific supply chains and worksites. The solutions here provide some steps towards reforming the private regulation of transnational agriculture through binding contracts, strong independent worker organizations and worker-driven enforcement, with meaningful financial contributions from companies. These steps are just a small element of the larger shifts of money and power needed to truly address the abuses built into the transnational agro-export industry.

For brands and certifiers:

● Certifiers must not certify suppliers with known labor rights abuses, including the presence of employer unions.

● Independent workers’ organizations must be directly engaged in the development and monitoring of any programs that claim to protect workers’ rights. Despite their ubiquity, employer protection unions cannot be a stand-in for worker engagement.

● Brands must replace voluntary certifications with binding agreements with independent worker organizations in their supply chains to ensure workers’ rights are protected.

● Brands and certifiers must ensure compliance with national labor laws –voluntary certifications cannot be permitted to undermine or replace compliance with national law.

● Certifiers must require the direct hiring of workers, recognizing the role of labor contracting in facilitating exploitation, forced labor, and a lack of accountability.

● Brands must pay prices that cover the true cost of rights-respecting practices, including production and enforcement.

Worker demands in the Mexican regulatory context

To fulfill the above, workers are calling on brands, certifiers, and suppliers to ensure the following take place in the San Quintín produce sector, demands which are consistent with the demands of the 2015 strike.

● End of employer protection contracts with company unions that violate collective bargaining and freedom of association rights.

● Good faith grower negotiations with independent worker unions on their sites. Suppliers must prioritize growers who sign collective bargaining agreements with such worker organizations.

● Compliance with federal labor law, social security law, and constitutional rights. These include, but are not limited to overtime, vacation, Sunday bonus, holiday pay, utilidades (profit sharing) and aguinaldo (seasonal bonus payments).

● End of forced overtime. All overtime must be voluntary without coercion or reprisals by foremen, growers, and company unions.

● Payment of piece-rate overtime according to law at a minimum or higher if established in a collective bargaining agreement with independent farmworker union to ensure fair pay.

● End of temporary contracts which farmworkers are forced to sign to keep workers in an artificial “temporary” status negating their labor and social security rights.

● End of forced labor, sexual harassment, and sexual violence in the workplace.

● End of subcontracting in agriculture.

● End of the “integrated salary” that incorporates legally established labor and social security benefits into short-term paychecks, reducing salaries and eroding long-term rights to pensions and other benefits.