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Californian contributing columnist Jose Gaspar.

Henry A. Barrios/ The Californian

Fifty-four years after first organizing farm workers in the fields of Kern County for better wages and working conditions, the United Farm Workers union is going global.

That was one of the major revelations at the UFW's 20th Constitutional Convention, held over the last four days at the Rabobank Convention Center.

Under what’s called the Equitable Food Initiative, the farm worker union is partnering with some of the biggest names in the retail food industry to improve the lives of the people who pick and pack produce consumed here and abroad.

“One of the goals is to protect workers inside and outside the U.S. as globalization transforms agriculture," said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez.

While California's billion-dollar ag industry is tops in the nation and most likely the world, the United States still imports a lot of its produce from abroad, especially Mexico, Central and South America.

And while that produce is supposed to be inspected by the Food and Drug Administration to make sure it is safe to consume, the conditions under which that produce was grown is an entirely different matter.

To give you an idea of just how miserable pay and living conditions can be for farmworkers in Mexico, I urge you to read the excellent four-part series “Product of Mexico" published by the Los Angeles Times last year. According to the series, much of the produce harvested by near-slave labor there ends up in U.S. supermarkets, including giant retailer Wal-Mart.

That’s where EFI comes in. It's a collaborative effort to develop standards that protect farmworkers and consumers while also helping boost growers’ bottom line.

The UFW partnered with retailers such as Costco, growers, environmental groups and Oxfam America to address consumer concerns that produce be safe and grown under nonexploitative conditions in and out of the United States.

"We realized we didn't have the ability solely with collective bargaining to improve the lives of farmworkers in the U.S. or anywhere else," said Rodriguez.

Working with key industry groups, EFI sets forth a list of standards by which growers must abide to ensure safe food for consumers and protections for farmworkers.

The standards cover a range of issues including worker health and safety, fair compensation, non-discrimination, dispute settlements, and education for management and workers to ensure they are trained and in compliance with EFI standards.

Growers that voluntarily comply with the standards are then certified by EFI and given a label of "Responsibly Grown, Farmworker Assured" that is applied to their produce. A grower cannot prohibit or retalitate against workers if they wish to join a labor union.

Retailers Costco, Bon Appetit and others have bought into the model and begun purchasing their produce from EFI-certified suppliers.

“We've been interested in farmworker rights for many years,” said Maisie Ganzler, vice president of strategy with Palo Alto-based Bon Appetit, which has 650 cafes in 32 states with 17,000 employees. "EFI seemed like a creative solution."

Ganzler also sits on the EFI executive board of directors, serving as vice-chair.

More ag industry groups are wising up that more needs to be done to meet not just their legal obligations but also engage in responsible labor practices. Just this month two of the largest produce associations in the country, United Fresh Produce and Produce Marketing Association, issued a joint letter to their members stressing the importance of responsible labor practices.

"Responsible labor practices are an important issue for our industry, and we recognize the growing interest of stakeholders in transparency throughout the global supply chain,” reads the letter signed by Brian Kocher, chairman of United Fresh Produce, and Russ Mounce, chairman of Produce Marketing Association. 

“This Joint Committee is working to help ensure our industry has a clear and well-defined commitment to treat all workers with dignity and respect as they work to bring fresh produce to consumers. As an industry, we want to proactively address this issue." 

To date, nine farms are EFI-certified: four in Mexico, four in the United States and one in Canada covering a total of 3,111 farmworkers. Ten more farms are pending certification.

“EFI has changed the whole tenor of the debate over protecting farmworkers,” said UFW National Vice President Erik Nicholoson, EFI’s chairman.

Currently, none of the EFI-certified farms in the U.S. has a union contract. But “I truly believe there are EFI farms that will go union,” Nicholson said.

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.

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