WASHINGTON, Sept. 28, 2020 /PRNewswire/ -- Pioneering and beloved human rights strategist and attorney Steven A. Hitov, General Counsel for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) for over 25 years, died on September 6, 2020 at his home in Adelphi, MD, after a long and courageous battle with cancer. His unconventional take on the legal system and social change helped set the course for a 21st century human rights revolution on farms throughout the South, and gave rise to a blueprint for the protection of workers' rights, the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model, that the MacArthur Foundation called "a visionary strategy…. with the potential to transform workplace environments across the global supply chain."

Mr. Hitov was part of a tight-knit team that designed the CIW's groundbreaking Fair Food Program (FFP), dramatically reconstructing labor conditions on countless farm fields and prompting the Harvard Business Review to call the FFP "one of the top 15 social impact success stories of the past century", along with the eradication of polio, Sesame Street, and children's car seats.

During the course of Mr. Hitov's tenure, the CIW went from a community organization born in the dirt-poor, crossroads town of Immokalee in rural Florida to an internationally-recognized leader in the field of business and human rights. His efforts touched the lives of workers from tomato fields in the South to dairy farms in Vermont, from construction sites in Minnesota to poultry plants in Arkansas, and from fashion runways in New York and Paris to garment factories in Bangladesh and Lesotho.

A lawyer, Mr. Hitov fought for nothing less than to eliminate the need for legal remedy. He sought to keep the milk unspilt: to prevent human rights violations from ever happening in the first place, rather than cleaning them up after the fact. On FFP farms, and in WSR workplaces, he did just that.

As NYC Human Rights Commissioner Cathy Albisa put it, "Steve's genius was the insight that our formal legal system was designed mostly to protect the powerful, not to bring meaningful social change to working people. So he and the CIW dreamed up and built a new system. A new democratic system that brought real enforceable rights to workers across the country."

Alejandra Carrera, a worker on a Fair Food Program farm, described the change to CNN, "You're not going to be harassed. You're not going to be insulted. You're not going to be forced to work. There's more respect now."

Grower Jon Esformes, CEO of Sunripe Certified Brands, one of the country's oldest and largest tomato producers and FFP partner, stated simply, "Steve Hitov didn't just change the lives of those around him. Steve Hitov changed the world."

Mr. Hitov cared little for public acclaim. He made an exception when he accepted the Presidential Medal for Excellence in Combatting Modern-Day Slavery at the Obama White House, on behalf of the CIW. He was also proud of being the inaugural recipient of the Gwynne Skinner Human Rights Award. But as a rule he worked his magic in the background. A key author of an unprecedented agreement between Walmart and the CIW, Mr. Hitov nonetheless did not even attend the public signing ceremony because, in his words, "I wasn't needed. My job was done."

Cheryl Queen, former Vice-President for Communications of Compass Group, the international food service giant and FFP partner, said, "I always imagined Steve as one of those heroes of the Old Testament, clothed in a flowing tunic and sandals, fighting pharaohs, lions and Goliaths. Steve was a warrior on the outside, and his cause was just and admirable. But beneath that warrior facade was the sweetest man, an unforgettable character, who could absolutely melt your heart."

Mr. Hitov was a man of deep convictions, principal among them the proposition that all people are indeed created equal, with equal dignity, equal value, and equal rights before the law. He lived his life determined to bend the world toward his faith in that principle. He applied it in everyday relations with his colleagues, too. Mr. Hitov's ability to contribute his extraordinary training and intellect, not as an attorney with a client, but as one among a team of equals, was as rare as it was valuable to the CIW's success.

Mr. Hitov's life's work of defending and expanding human rights, always with an eagle-eyed focus on upending the structural causes of poverty, spanned nearly 50 years, and played out in a wide range of arenas, from the U.S. Supreme Court to the farm fields of Florida to the United Nations in Geneva. He dedicated his legal career to ensuring that the poor at the bottom rungs of society could speak with the same powerful voice and wield the same effective legal representation as the rich at the top. He strongly believed for that to happen, lawyers for poor people needed to be twice as good and work twice as hard, which he was and he did. He never let his cancer get in the way, but somehow worked through great pain with the same incisive analysis and humor as always.

Mr. Hitov is featured in the book I Am Not A Tractor: How Farmworkers Took On The Fast Food Giants And Won, his work in the movie Food Chains, and he authored many articles, including "Ending Slavery in the Supply Chain" in the Wake Forest Law Review.

He was graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1970 and from New York University Law School in 1975. He is survived by his loving wife Matilde "Tillie" Lacayo, sisters Eleanor and Naomi, and his brother, David.

Perhaps Greg Asbed, CIW co-founder, said it best: "The world has lost a giant, one who happily forsook Goliath for a life well-spent in David's army."

Contact: Marley Monacello, 1-239-357-0393, marley@ciw-online.org

SOURCE Coalition of Immokalee Workers

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