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In this episode of Fluent in Floridian, agricultural and human rights activist Greg Asbed joins SalterMitchell PR President Heidi Otway to discuss his revolutionary journey in combatting human trafficking and slavery in one of Florida’s biggest farmworker communities. Tune in as he details his two-decade-long fight to make Florida the nation’s leader in farmworker conditions.
Chris Cate: Today’s episode of Fluent in Floridian includes a discussion on abuse, human trafficking, and genocide. These are serious subjects that may not be appropriate for all audiences. To better understand these complex issues, we have linked educational resources in the show notes at fluentinfloridian.com.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian Podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. In this episode created by SalterMitchell PR, our executive producer, Heidi Otway, the president of SalterMitchell PR, talks to Greg Asbed, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Heidi Otway: So Greg, thank you so much for being a guest on this Fluent in Floridian Podcast. We’re so happy to have you join us today.
Greg Asbed: Thank you. I appreciate it. And I love the name of the podcast, Fluent in Floridian. It’s interesting. It implies where we’re going to go in the conversation.
Heidi Otway: Exactly. And actually that segues perfectly into my first question. What brought you to Florida?
Greg Asbed: An old car of mine.
Heidi Otway: Well, tell me. What kind of car? I’m a car buff. What kind of car?
Greg Asbed: Oh, you want to know the kind of car. It was an old Plymouth. It was 1991. It was an old car then, a terrible car. First thing that happened, the oil plug came out when we were here in Fort Myers, and that was the end of that car. But it got me down here from DC. That’s where we came from at the time.
What brought us down was to work, was an opportunity to work in Immokalee, the community where we work today. So we have not moved in 31 years since we got here. We still work, and even the same office that we arrived at 31 years ago, in that same building in Immokalee, in the center of Immokalee. And it’s the Immokalee’s a farm worker community, the biggest farm worker community in Florida. We had worked in the Eastern Shore area of Maryland and Virginia before coming here with what they call legal services for migrant farm workers. So the workers had some legal support when they are not paid or they’re treated wrongly, or whatever it might be.
And while we were up there, it’s a very short season there. It’s about a month, or at most two months of the year that people are in that area. And we realized that if we’re going to have any impact on actually getting to the roots of the problems that farm workers face we’d have to be where they consider it to be their community. And people up in the Eastern Shore used to say, “Well, I live in Immokalee, but I’m here for the season.” Right? And Immokalee is the place that we came to learn as a real community, so that’s what brought us down here, to work with people services at first down here in Immokalee.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. Well, you just referenced the problems that farmworkers face. What do they face?
Greg Asbed: What don’t they face is probably the shorter question or shorter answer. Everything from having the wages stolen on a regular basis, to humiliating and harsh treatment at work. But that’s sort of the lower end of the spectrum. Dangerous conditions, pesticide exposure, but it can go all the way up to constant sexual harassment, sexual assault at work. And in the worst cases, forced labor, modern day slavery, which is actually what we started to come across pretty quickly once we landed in Immokalee.
Within a couple years, we’d uncovered one of the seminal cases in US’s modern anti-slavery movement that was based in Immokalee and LaBelle, another small town just north of Immokalee, and also operated up the East Coast. But it was located really it’s base was down in Immokalee and LaBelle.
So those are the conditions you would find when I first got here. Our office was right across the street from the big parking lot in town where people would go to get to work in the morning and get dropped off after work with school buses, that sort of thing that you kind of see around. And it was nothing on payday to see somebody getting beaten up by their boss because they were asking for their pay. They said their pay wasn’t right. And they were essentially alone. You know, nobody had anybody else’s back, back in that day.
And so it was kind of just dog eat dog and the crew leaders, the farm bosses, had more family and more people with them. And so it was inevitably an unequal sort of fight, literally and figuratively, and people were just suffering horrible abuse.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. So when you were seeing these things, what were the first steps that you all took to say, we got to change this?
Greg Asbed: Well, unfortunately, if it had just depended on us doing something that never would happen. There were a lot of people in the community, a lot of farm workers in the community, that had just happened to arrive here from Haiti and from Guatemala and Southern Mexico. If you remember, this was the early nineties, so one of the big waves of Haitian immigrants was right around that same time after the president was overthrown, the popular president was overthrown.
I had worked in Haiti for three years before I came here. So I actually happened to know personally and have worked with in the countryside in Haiti with people who came in that big wave in the nineties and arrived in Immokalee. We would run into each other on the street. You know, friends from Haiti, we would run into each other on the street. And we all, all of us, what we had in common was training in community organizing from Haiti.
So we weren’t alone. People from Guatemala and from Mexico who were coming in around that same time, a lot of them had that same thing, training or experience in cooperatives back home, or in peasant movements, or organizations, or church-based organizations, all those things.
Heidi Otway: Yeah.
Greg Asbed: And what we did was just kind of talk to our friends and talk to people we met and say the problem you’re having at work, that you came to legal services for, the one where you didn’t get your full pay that week. Are you alone in that? Are you the only person who had that problem there? If not, shouldn’t we try to get together and see if we can’t fix it once and for all? Right? And we talked with people, especially from Haiti, who had that same experience that I was able to have in Haiti and said why don’t we, we’ve all moved here to do a certain job and everything, but why don’t we unpack the skills we have back from home in Haiti and use them here and see what happens? Why don’t we try to make things better here the way we were working together in Haiti?
One thing led to another, and we started having meetings at the local Catholic church in Immokalee every week. Just simple meetings, where we’d maybe show a movie and then talk about it afterwards sort of thing, you know?
Heidi Otway: Yeah.
Greg Asbed: And people started to talk about the things they wanted to see change, and the things they were tired of having to face, and the things that nobody should have to face at work. And before you know it, we started to come together. The community started to come together and started to take action. So that was how it all got started.
Heidi Otway: What was the response from the businesses that were doing the harsh treatment of the individuals when they heard that you all were having these meetings and coming up with solutions to end this?
Greg Asbed: Well, it wasn’t exactly welcoming in the beginning. Actually in 1995, we organized a strike. Because what had happened was one of the companies had cut the wage below minimum wage and that triggered. Because we had been coming together, we had been meeting and talking, that was sort of like a spark, that took that process and turned it into a strike. Right? And so there was a big community-wide strike, thousands of people for a week.
We didn’t get what we were looking for, but the community did announce the fact that they were tired of all this kind of thing happening, and the wage cut was taken back. So it went back to what it was before.
Heidi Otway: Good.
Greg Asbed: But it wasn’t everything the community looking for. And so we organized, and there was a couple more strikes after that. And in one case we did get to sit down with one of the companies and they actually increased the wages as a result by 25%. So there were some changes and there was a tiny bit of dialogue in those days between the community and the employers, but nowhere near the kind of transformation that the community was looking for.
The community wanted to build a more modern, more humane agricultural industry. That’s what they wanted to do. And through those actions, we were just kind of chipping at the edges. So we were continuing, always looking for new ways we could push things forward.
Heidi Otway: Is that how the coalition was born?
Greg Asbed: Yes. In fact, it was born right after that first strike. The strike, got a lot of news in the local Southwest Florida area, and since it was associated with the Catholic church, that was a bit of a problem because they get donations from places that don’t necessarily like that sort of thing. And so there was a maybe it’s time for you to fly and be free, and so we did become a separate organization at that point and got a little storefront office, tiny little storefront office down in Immokalee, and launched the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
And the coalition was the idea of the three major communities in Immokalee, the Haitian community, the Guatemalan community, and the Mexican community, coming together as one, as opposed to being three separate communities. Because in fact, they all face the same challenges. They all faced the same abuses. And if they didn’t all come together as one, they’d never overcome those challenges or those abuses. So that was the idea of the coalition. It was a coalition of communities into one community.
Heidi Otway: What was their response from the owners of the farms?
Greg Asbed: Still not a warm embrace, but more of a watching us, seeing what we’re doing. At the time, they felt that they really didn’t have any need to make any change. And there wasn’t enough power or pressure to actually make change happen. And so, even though we did try every way possible to have conversations without having to do protest, those efforts, never bore fruit.
You couldn’t get people who weren’t interested to come to the table, and so we were forced to continue doing protests. We did everything from a couple of more strikes to six of our members doing a month-long hunger strike back from the end of ’97 to the beginning of ’98, over the holidays, over the New Year, that in the end caught all kinds of attention, and local Archbishop became very supportive at the time. He’s since passed. He was a tremendous person.
Even Jimmy Carter got involved and tried on his part to write a letter, a public letter, to the growers and ask them. Because the sole demand of the hunger strike was dialogue, was to sit down and talk together about the industry. That was it. There was nothing beyond that. It was simply, we’re doing this because the industry won’t talk to its workers and we need to talk.
And so we did that. President Carter supported it, and they still didn’t do anything about it. In fact, interestingly, they said at the time, and this came to us from one of the farmers that we really knew. He said, “I was talking to another guy and I asked him, I said, why won’t we sit down? Why won’t everybody just sit down and talk? What’s so bad about that?”
And the guy said, “Let put it to you this way. The tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to run the farm.” So that’s what we were up against, quite frankly. And it’s poetic, I got to say. There’s a nice metaphor there.
Heidi Otway: Wow.
Greg Asbed: It’s a well-executed metaphor, but it’s not a very nice metaphor. What it’s saying is that the human beings were just another tool at the time. That’s changed. I mean, to the credit of the tomato industry in particular, who were the leaders in the beginning of this whole thing that we’re doing today, the Fair Food Program. They may not have wanted to do this when they ended up joining us and working in the Fair Food Program back in 2011, after all of these years of doing this.
Heidi Otway: So it took that long before you finally got a grower to sit at the table?
Greg Asbed: From 1993, 94, till 2000, we were doing those things like strikes and hunger strikes and marches. We marched from Fort Myers to Orlando, 234 miles all the way. And in fact, we made a paper mache reinterpretation of the Statue of Liberty, but instead of a torch in her hands, she had a tomato. Instead of the book under her arms, she had a tomato bucket.
Heidi Otway: Wow.
Greg Asbed: And her color was different.
Heidi Otway: Yeah.
Greg Asbed: And she said, “I too am American.” That was what was on the pedestal. And we marched across the state of Florida with that, all the way to the offices of the Florida Tomato Committee, Florida Tomato Growers Exchange in Orlando. That all took place between the nineties and 2000.
And then in 2001, we launched a different campaign based on a different analysis of the food industry. Instead of looking at agriculture as being the agricultural industry, the begins and the ends at the farm gate, like where the farm ends, that’s kind of where our thinking ends.
Heidi Otway: Right.
Greg Asbed: All these problems happen here on the farm. So that must be where we fix them, right? But instead of looking at it as the agricultural industry, we looked at it as part of the food industry and that’s…
Heidi Otway: Part of the food chain.
Greg Asbed: Part of the food chain. That’s where we found that the real power that sort of set the ceiling on conditions on the farm, this side of the farm gate, wasn’t from the farmers and the crew leaders that we saw, that people saw every day. It was from those bigger multi-billion dollar buyers of the produce in Immokalee, where the produce went on trucks after it left Immokalee.
That’s where the power really sits. Huge companies who have the power to tell their suppliers what they need to do. Right? And usually what they do is they tell them, “You know what? People want small seedless watermelons, so they can fit in their refrigerator. So start creating small seedless watermelons.” Out of the blue. Right? And they did that because those buyers can say that’s what people want. Right?
I was working in watermelons at the time when that change happened. The very time, the very season that change happened, the first seedless watermelons and the whole system had to change the whole way of processing them and everything else. Packing them and everything else had to change. That just came out of nowhere. It just came out of the power of those big buyers.
Heidi Otway: So you found the root, you found the influencer?
Greg Asbed: Exactly. So if they can do that, they can also tell their suppliers, we don’t want you to mistreat people when you produce the stuff that we buy. We want you to treat them fair, like human beings. And if you don’t, we’ll buy from someone else. So that’s the power that we finally, after many years of banging our heads against the wall, we finally figured out exists. And the way we could talk to it was by talking to their buyers. And their buyers are you and me. That’s the thing, is that most people, when they think about the food industry, they think, well, it ends at Walmart, or it ends at Publix or it ends it, whatever. Some company, that’s the top of the food industry, but we’re the top of the food industry.
Heidi Otway: Exactly.
Greg Asbed: And just the way that Walmart or whoever can tell a grower what they want them to do. If consumers act concertedly, if they come together, they can tell Walmart, or Publix, or whoever what they want them to do. Right? That’s the campaign we launched in 2001. It took another decade before we finally got enough agreements, called Fair Food Agreements, with these buyers to allow us to launch the Fair Food Program in 2009. And to the credit of the growers in the Florida tomato industry, who now are really great partners and who have created what’s been called the best working environment in US agriculture.
Heidi Otway: Wow. That is amazing.
Greg Asbed: They did that with us. We didn’t do that ourselves. Once we had a chance to finally work together, we built that environment together. And so we went from those early days that we described earlier, to where we are today and it’s just a world of difference. But in the process, the whole industry here in Florida has become the leader in the country in terms of truly, measurably, better and more humane conditions for farm workers than ever have existed in this country.
Heidi Otway: Congratulations. That is amazing. I got goosebumps just hearing you say that.
Greg Asbed: And it’s a great thing. And congratulations, like I said, go all the way around. They start with people in Immokalee who decided back in the nineties that they didn’t want this to keep going anymore, the generations of problems of farm workers. It starts there but then it goes all the way through to the growers, and the buyers that we’re working with who are part of the program too. Because the program brings buyers together with growers, together with workers in the partnership. Right?
And so it’s all of them. Companies like Whole Foods and other companies that have said we want to buy from places where we know people are protected, where we know that sexual harassment doesn’t take place every day, where those things that hit the news every now and then, the forced labor cases. There’s been a couple out of Florida. There’s a huge one out of Georgia involving 70,000 workers, and more than 200 million of illegal profits of a forced labor operation out of Georgia.
Heidi Otway: Wow.
Greg Asbed: Those things go on outside the Fair Food Program every day. But inside the Fair Food program, they don’t. So that’s why buyers, that’s why they’re interested because they want to know that when they buy food, people weren’t mistreated behind it.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. So over the last three decades, you’ve made some major accomplishments that, like you said, have changed the industry, changed the lives of maybe millions of people when you think about the scale of this. So what is your drive now? What are you all working toward now?
Greg Asbed: Yeah, that’s a great question because actually what was born in Immokalee, and this is an amazing thing too. Because people don’t think about it, but Immokalee is an incredibly poor town, right? Like dirt streets and everything everywhere. If you’ve ever been through it, the housing is still pretty remarkably bad. And people live overcrowded, bad conditions. When COVID hit, it was really it was hit very badly by COVID because of the conditions people live.
What was born in that small dusty crossroads town of Immokalee has now spread to three continents across the globe. In Bangladesh, in Lesotho, which is inside of South Africa, an independent country but within South Africa. And it’s continuing to spread further. But in Bangladesh where it spread first, the apparel industry, people who sew our clothes, the clothes that are so cheap. When you go and you buy a shirt, $5 at Walmart, you wonder how can that actually be? It was shipped here. That’s got to be more than $5, right? But what about the building, what about the making of it, right?
The people who make that work in these incredibly harsh and unsafe factories in places like Bangladesh that used to burn down or collapse and kill hundreds of people at a time. Happening all the time. And you might have seen a few years ago, several years ago, when there was a particularly horrible factory collapse. They dug around and they found the labels and they found they were connected to certain well-known brands, right? And that happened to be sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back. And so human rights organizations in Bangladesh and worker unions there got together and did the same thing inspired by what we did. And called on the brands that buy the clothes to sign agreements that say they’ll only buy from factories that treat people safely.
That is called the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety. It covers nearly two million people. It has grown since, and it has absolutely saved lives, countless lives. When you look at that and you scratch under the ground where that’s planted, the roots come all the way back to Immokalee. That makes us inordinately happy, right? Because it means that those first meetings back in the Catholic church in Immokalee where you think, how are we ever going to change this massive industry? How are we ever going to make people’s lives better when the forces they’re facing seem so overwhelming?
But we not only did that in Florida, but the idea that was born out of that process is helping people everywhere. And now we’re talking with workers who go on fishing boats in faraway countries. In Spain, in the agricultural industry with workers from Morocco who go to Spain to go work there. The possibilities of the continuing application and spread of this technology for social change that was born in Immokalee are really limitless. So it’s been quite a ride.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. I’m sure your phone is probably blowing up all the time with people saying, “Hey, can I pick your brain?”
Greg Asbed: Yeah, no. And we wish we were just a hell of a lot more people and resources to be able to do everything that’s out there. But we’re doing what we can to meet the demand and working everywhere we can. What we always say is that it’s like, we know that in this tiny laboratory where we’ve worked, we came up with a theory about how to beat cancer. And we put that theory to the test. We think we have a cure for cancer. We tested it and it works. It works. I mean, it works, right? And so now we’re like, we got to get this everywhere because cancer is everywhere. People everywhere face the sadness of cancer.
But in this case, the cancer is labor exploitation and poverty and generational poverty that gives people little chance of even dreaming of anything different for the children. And this works to change that. So for us, we’re kind of like as if somebody found a vaccine that would stop cancer and was just evangelical across the globe, trying to get it out to everybody. So we’re trying our hardest and people are coming to us. It is resource heavy and hard to do, but we’re doing what we can.
Chris Cate: The Fluent in Floridian podcast is brought to you by SalterMitchell PR, a communications consultancy focused on helping good causes win. We provide strategic insight and guidance to organizations seeking to make an impact in the nation’s third most populous state. Learn more at smprflorida.com.
Chris Cate: Now, before we return to Heidi’s interview with Greg Asbed, we want to remind you that today’s episode includes a discussion on abuse, human trafficking and genocide. These are serious subjects that may not be appropriate for all audiences. To better understand these complex issues, we have linked educational resources in the show notes @fluentinfloridian.com.
Heidi Otway: So your passion for this, does it go back to how you were raised, or your parents, or your family? Sometimes there are like little seeds that are planted in us when we’re little that kind of germinate into who we become. What influenced you to get into this line of work? Or what’s your drive here?
Greg Asbed: I mean, it’s lots of things. First and foremost, it’s because I’m a human being. And everybody who’s human, which is a pretty big family of people, should have the same rights. I mean just the idea of universal human rights is probably the very deepest fire inside of me that drives what I do, is that I do believe deeply in universal human rights. Everybody’s right to a life with dignity, and safety, and fair wages, and fair treatment.
I mean, particularly outside of that, living in Haiti for three years, living in the countryside in Haiti and watching the country struggle with democracy and struggle to actually have enough to eat for all its people and school for everybody and all that, in a country that has no resources and it’s only getting worse. And seeing people in Haiti coming together with nothing, absolutely nothing. I mean, you think people are poor, we say in Immokalee “Go to the countryside of Haiti” and you just see a whole different level of poor. And despite that, barely eating one meal a day as a rule, right? And that meal being rice and beans, if possible. Killing a chicken is just for a major occasion having that kind of meat or something like that.
Heidi Otway: Right.
Greg Asbed: That kind of poverty, where you cut down mango trees, because you need to turn it in a charcoal to get cash to buy the fuel for your lamp at night. But you know that a mango tree gives you food every year, but still between those seasons, you need that cash. And so you cut down a mango. That kind of poverty, right? And still overcome that poverty to fight, to realize their own universal human rights. I was living within that world and within that process. Right?
And so that inspired me. But also, my father was Armenian. He was born right after the Armenian genocide in Syria. And my grandmother had survived the Armenian genocide, whereas the rest of her family, except for one sister, did not. Right? They were in Turkey and they were marched and the rest were killed. But the two young ladies were not. And they made it after she was bought by Kurds from the Turks and then sold again by the Kurds to an Armenian family, which was my grandfather’s family and found safety in Syria. And then my father was born shortly thereafter. And he always told us, he was the only person from his family who came to the US for many, many, many, many years. Right?
But he always told us that the way that happened was because he had no money. His mother was dirt poor, but the Armenian community, after the genocide, came together. People who had resources still, people who had not suffered as much and survived, came together because education for the Armenian community is very important. And they paid for poor kids who had zero money for school. They paid for them to go to school, and every year that they did well in school, they paid for them for the next year. And that’s how my father ended up going through school, going to the American University in Cairo, and all the way through Niels Bohr’s lab in Denmark, the father of the atom back at the time, and all the way to the US to work at Johns Hopkins. But from nothing.
Heidi Otway: Wow.
Greg Asbed: And he said, “I could not have done that by myself because we didn’t have any way to do it. It was a community coming together to make it possible.” And so that was always part of my understanding of things, and then Haiti really put a fine point on it in today’s world and how people are fighting for that stuff. And then just my belief in the fact that no matter who you are, your rights are the same as everybody else’s. That simple. Because you’re a person, you were born. The second you’re born, you’re born with a bag of rights, rights that are all yours forever. And if somebody tries to take them from you, they don’t have that right. They can’t do that, and you should fight. That’s just always been how I feel.
Heidi Otway: That’s really good. You know, you’ve gotten a lot of awards and accolades for your passion and the work that you do to help others live better lives. How do you feel when you get those awards or those accolades, or being in Florida Trend magazine as one of the 500 most influential people in the state?
Greg Asbed: They’re nice. I mean, they’re very nice to have people recognize the work that I’m doing. But if I were an artist, if I were a graphic artist, then I think I’d feel a lot better about individual accolades. Because even though no artist is born sui generis, by themselves in the world and just comes up with the arts that they come up with, they are a part of a stream of human art forever, still each one does their own art individually. And so an individual accolade makes a lot of sense in that sense, right?
But for human rights work, for community organizing, for the kind of work that we do, individual recognition misses the point. I mean, I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I just want to say that there’s nothing you can do in the world of human rights, that you simply can’t achieve anything by yourself. It never will happen. No individual can achieve anything in human rights by his or herself. It has to be, by definition, together with more people. Because nobody who is currently violating rights, stops doing it because one person asked them to. That just doesn’t happen.
Heidi Otway: As we know from your coalition.
Greg Asbed: Right.
Heidi Otway: It took all of you. And then you had to get others to come support the work that you were doing.
Greg Asbed: That’s what everything is about, bringing people together to demand universal human rights. I mean, that’s what it is. And that bringing people together means that no one did this by themselves. So whenever something happens in the CIW, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, we always look at any recognition as being collective. Because the work was collective that made the recognition happen.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. What’s the response from the coalition when these things happen. I mean, do you go tell them, “Look what we did,” and there’s a celebratory?
Greg Asbed: Yeah. I mean, everything we do, we do together. So everybody knows everything that’s happening at every minute. We work in a very collaborative, very horizontal, sort of structure, and we’re constantly analyzing and acting. That process is connected always, right? So we analyze and we act on the basis of that. And then we analyze what’s happened as a result. And then we act on the basis of that. And it’s this cycle that moves us forward.
And that’s why we, after 10 years of fighting in Immokalee with the agricultural industry, we analyzed that we were not where we wanted to be, and we had to think more broadly. What is the analysis that will get us to the next level? And that’s where we saw that the agricultural industry is a subset of the food industry, and the food industry is much bigger and much more powerful. Right? And that’s where the power would lie.
So that sort of process, of analysis and then a group process by definition, right, is what defines the work we do, frankly, as a community. And it’s beautiful because, again, even thinking there is not a single human being who can think their way out of the kinds of problems that we’ve been able to solve. Not at all. You have to have countless minds working on it.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. So when you’re not helping end human trafficking and modern day slavery, what do you do in your spare time? Or do you have spare time?
Greg Asbed: No, there’s always spare time. Well, I have a tiny little family, my partner, Laura Germino who is incredible. She’s the head of our anti modern day slavery work, and she back in the day received the state department’s Hero Award against modern day slavery and received it from Hillary Clinton in the State department’s massive ceremony. She and I have worked together since we met back in college. And then we had a remarkable young man, Isaiah, who’s a big part of both our lives.
So the three of us, if we have spare time, we spend it together. And a lot of that is we lived in LaBelle, which is a small town, for 28 years before we moved to Fort Myers just recently. But Isaiah, our son, played what they call junior pro basketball, and then the flag football and this kind of stuff. And I was always coaching him through all that process.
Heidi Otway: Great.
Greg Asbed: Yeah. Nothing quite like coaching kids’ sports in a small town. I can tell you that.
Heidi Otway: How’s it different from what you think would happen in a big town.
Greg Asbed: Oh, no. Because anywhere you go in town, little kids are like, “Coach, coach, how you doing?” It’s a different thing because everybody knows everybody. There’s only one high school in LaBelle, and there’s only like a handful of elementary schools and one middle school. So everybody knows everybody and the leagues pretty much bring everybody together.
So when you’re doing that, I mean, it’s nice because the town is made up of all different kinds of communities, right? I think it’s like 80% Latino and 10% Black and White and everybody plays together because that’s what kids do. Right? And so when you’re coaching, you’re doing that with all the parents. You’re doing that with all the kids and it just brings everybody together. And so wherever you go, people know you and stuff because of that. Everybody should do it if they’ve got a chance to do. It’s really very fun.
Heidi Otway: So you talked a lot about, it takes a lot of people to help support the work that you’re doing and move this forward, to end this modern day slavery. So for the people who are listening to this show and they’re like, “I would like to get involved. I would like to learn more.” What should they do?
Greg Asbed: Well, we have a couple of websites. We have the Fair Food Program website, which is literally fairfoodprogram.org. There’s a lot of information there about the program. You can find reports and all this kind stuff about the things that it’s done every year since it’s started, and the recognition it’s received, and the press about the program and that sort of thing, testimony from people who are part of the program, workers in the program, what they’ve experienced. So all of that’s there to become more aware of the work that they’re doing. But there’s also a section of that website that tells you what to do if you want help the movement. That is the easiest way.
If you want to learn more about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers itself and our history and our work and everything else that we’re doing, we have a website which is CIW-online.org. You can see all our work there. So if anybody’s interested in understanding more about what we do, just learning more about what we do, or supporting us, I’d start at the Fair Food Program and then go to the CIW site.
Heidi Otway: Okay. And then my last question for you before we go to our final four questions, where do you see yourself five years from now?
Greg Asbed: Hopefully in a lot more countries helping expand what’s called the worker-driven social responsibility program, which is what grew out of the Fair Food Program to a lot more industries in a lot more countries, because we know it’s necessary. That’s basically what I wake up every morning thinking about, and go to bed every night thinking about, is how to continue expanding the WSR model, the worker-driven social responsibility model. Because what’s called corporate social responsibility, which is basically a corporation saying, “We got this. Don’t worry about the factory fires. Don’t worry about the human rights. Don’t worry about slavery. Don’t worry about sexual assault in our supply chain. We’ll take care of it.” But that’s never worked and it never will. It doesn’t have the means to work. It’s like saying, “I’m going to go work out in the yard, but I’m going to use a fork and a knife.” What are you going to do? Right? You don’t have the tools to work in the yard.
It’s the same thing. If your job is to try to stop those abuses from happening, what’s called corporate social responsibility, that is just an occasional social audit once a year maybe, at best, where auditors come and they talk to a handful of workers and then go away. That’s not going to work. That’s not going to stop anything. But that’s what the model has been. Worker-driven social responsibility, WSR, is designed as the antidote to that, to the new paradigm. And so for us, everywhere that corporate social responsibility can be replaced with worker-driven social responsibility is a victory. And that’s what I go to bed and wake up every day thinking about.
Heidi Otway: And you’re trying to spread this across all industries, not necessarily industries where you have people laboring to produce something, right?
Greg Asbed: Well, industries where people are facing human rights abuses, and especially at the bottom of long corporate supply chains. So you hear a lot about supply chains today, right? But you hear about more as a consumer. Like I want to get a car, but I can’t get a car because the chip supply chain, that kind of thing that people are talking about in the news.
But your shirts and your pants and your food and your electronics, they all come from supply chains of these major companies, brands that we know. From the Apples and the Walmart’s and the Publix’s. Think of all the things when you walk into a Publix. They all came from a different place. They all came through these supply chains. And behind those supply chains, at the bottom of the supply chains, are literally millions of people who are working to produce those things for you every day, virtually without exception work in poverty and facing extreme abuse.
And it’s just simply never changed. It’s been the case for years. And if there is no change in how we try to improve those things, it will continue to be that same way for years. What we hope to do is to get into as many corporate supply chains this technology born in Immokalee and find a way to improve the lives of all those people.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. So it’d be good for all of our listeners to really check out your website so they can learn more, so they can become more aware. Because I think awareness also can help in the cause, because then like you said, the consumer can be the ones to demand that product that I’m purchasing wasn’t made at the hands of a 12-year-old kid living in terrible poverty or long hours or putting their lives at risk.
Greg Asbed: It’s the thing that you’re hearing about now about the Uighur people in China. You may have come across that where some massive percent of the world’s cotton comes from China. So probably you and I are wearing some clothes right now that are produced with cotton from this area, the Uighur area of Western China.
And there is an ongoing genocide there. People are forced into camps. Taken from their families, they’re forced into camps. There’s forced labor. People are killed, executed, beaten, and it’s all in effort to wipe away the Uighur culture and replace it with mainstream Chinese culture. And it’s horrible. It’s absolutely horrible. Not very well covered, but covered. So if you want to learn about it, it’s out there. The US just passed a law that just now is coming into enforcement saying that cotton coming from that region is assumed to be cotton produced in forced labor.
That’s how bad is. That entire region that produces something like 20 or 40% of all cotton in the world. Any cotton coming from that region is assumed, because of the nature of how bad the problem is there, to be produced in forced labor and therefore cannot be imported in the United States unless you can prove materially that it was not, and nobody can.
Heidi Otway: Well, that’s great, but I’m sure more needs to be done.
Greg Asbed: Yeah, exactly. And the problem is that in China, China will not allow for real human rights programs like what we do.
Heidi Otway: So you can’t go over there, and be an advisor and provide support, or do some advocacy or coalition building?
Greg Asbed: No. And that’s the problem with the kind of autocracy that we see growing across the world today, in Russia or China or other places, where the government in the end determines everything that happens in country, right? It’s not political. I mean, if an alien came down from a different planet and was trying to describe what’s going on in China, they would say, there’s an autocratic government that determines everything that happens in the country and they use force and imprisonment to enforce that. It’s not a political thing. It’s just a reality, right? An alien reporting back to his or her planet or whatever, and trying to maybe predict how that will change. There is no way to see how that’s going to change today because that control is so tight. There’s not a lot of ways forward.
So, the market is very powerful though. The market is a very, very powerful force, and it’s possible if there’s enough pressure created by laws like the one the US just passed saying that cotton from that area cannot be imported, just that economic pressure may force some reforms, but it’s not happening yet.
Heidi Otway: Well, thank you for sharing that. And hopefully our listeners will do something to learn more about that. Again, like you said, awareness does help.
Greg Asbed: Awareness definitely helps.
Heidi Otway: People make decisions.
Greg Asbed: Yeah. Just knowing what’s happening around. And look, I totally get it. My wife and I both have iPhones. Right? And there’s a lot of abuse that happens in iPhones, from the precious minerals going into them, to the assembly of them and everything else. It’s very, very hard. It’s impossible probably to actually live in a way where you’re not touching that kind of something.
Heidi Otway: Something.
Greg Asbed: Exactly. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to learn. You should learn. You should know. Knowing is the first step to doing anything about it. And then when you can do something about it, like you can with now, for example, Florida tomatoes. Buy the heck out of Florida tomatoes, because you know that they’re the best, most fairly produced tomatoes in all the United States. And that’s real. And you know that. Right?
And so when there are these rare occasions where something is being done that is truly better, learn about it and support it. That we can do. Don’t beat yourself up over the fact that everything else has some connection to something bad somewhere because it does.
Heidi Otway: Great advice. Thank you so much. So I hate to end our conversation. I have a lot more questions, but I think I’m going to go ahead and wrap up with our four favorite questions that we ask our guests of the show. So the first question is who is a Florida leader that you admire? It can be someone from any different industry or field, from the past, or someone who was still active in their work today.
Greg Asbed: Hm. I’m going to say from today. John Esformes and he’s not a name that most people know. But he runs one of the tomato companies that we work with. He was the first grower to sign an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers that launched the Fair Food Program. He’s the first grower that I got to know personally, and really come to respect and admire and enjoy my time with him every time that I’m with him. He’s not just funny and a good human being and got a good heart, but he puts his business behind what he believes. And that’s not easy because you have shareholders who may not agree with you and that sort of thing, board members. But he’s quite strong about what he believes and he will fight for it. He’s been an inspiration to me since we started working together.
Heidi Otway: Okay, what is a person, place, or thing in Florida that deserves more attention than it’s currently getting?
Greg Asbed: I can tell you our favorite place and a place that’s in danger, is not a single place, but Florida springs. The things that we like to do when we’re not working is go and be around the springs. Just, first of all, that whole area, sort of Central Florida, across Ocala and all those places, is beautiful. It’s a little bit of hilly territory, the oaks and everything else. It’s unique. And more so in terms of being unique is our aquifer, our underground structure that creates the springs all over that area. And swimming in one of those springs, being around one of those springs, just seeing the springs makes us happy.
Greg Asbed: But they’re being threatened by fertilizer and by human waste and everything else, and they’re getting overwhelmed by grasses that are destroying what’s been there forever, and what people thought was the Fountain of Youth back in the day. And to see that happen, to see manatees die, because they can’t find the regular food that they eat and that sort of thing, die of hunger. Manatees are mammals. I mean, they’re pretty close to us. They’re thinking animals, and to see them dying of hunger feels horrible.
Greg Asbed: To see those springs lost is just unimaginable, and that’s the process that’s kind of going on right now. So that’s for us, it’s our favorite place. It’s not necessarily as well-known as places like Disney and the beaches and all that, but it’s fantastic and we need to protect it.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. Well, I think you touched on this next question. What is your favorite location to visit in Florida?
Greg Asbed: I mean, the springs are there in terms of vacation, in terms of taking time off. My wife and I did our honeymoon up in Apalachicola, which is an incredible coast up there if nobody’s been up there. So that would be another place I just slide in here is to say how much we love that area. And we’ve gone back a couple times with our son. I don’t know, I think LaBelle, the town where we settled and the town where our son grew up. It’s a different community and we love it.
Heidi Otway: Good. So you’re a coach. You said that you were a coach for your son’s sporting teams. So do you have a favorite Florida sports team?
Greg Asbed: This will make some people not so happy. No, I don’t. I mean, I love basketball. I love football. Two sports that I die for. But my football team is in the Dallas Cowboys. My basketball team is the Washington Wizards. So I can’t really help you on that count.
Heidi Otway: A Cowboys fan.
Greg Asbed: Yeah, I’m a Cowboys fan. It’s a long story. I mean, if there were one team in Florida that I root for, if they’re playing, it’s probably the Miami Heat.
Heidi Otway: Miami Heat.
Greg Asbed: They have a good culture about their team. They work hard. It’s good to see them play. So I like them. But if they’re playing my Wizards.
Heidi Otway: Not so much. All right. Well, Greg, thank you so much for being a guest on the show. It was a pleasure talking to you and learning more about the incredible work that you’re doing in Florida and across the world. We appreciate you. Thank you.
Greg Asbed: I have really enjoyed the conversation, and thank you very much. I look forward to hearing more of these in the future.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian Podcast. This show is executive produced by April Salter with additional support provided by Heidi Otway and the team at SalterMitchell PR. If you need help telling your Florida story, SalterMitchell PR has you covered by offering issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. You can learn more about SalterMitchell PR at smprflorida.com. You can also learn more about the Fluent in Floridian Podcast and listen to every episode of the show at fluentinfloridian.com, or by searching for the show using your favorite podcast app. Have a great day.
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