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April 2011, Week 5

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Fri, 29 Apr 2011 20:00:20 -0400
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How the Florida Tomato Industry Went from Being One of
the Most Repressive Employers to the Most Progressive 

By Barry Estabrook, The Atlantic Posted on April 21, 2011,

Printed on April 29, 2011

http://www.alternet.org/story/150708/how_the_florida_tomato_industry_went_from_being_one_of_the_most_repressive_employers_to_the_most_progressive

Last week, I attended tomato school.

Sitting in a room at a packing plant near Immokalee in
southwest Florida with about 50 migrant laborers, I
learned that I had a right to earn a minimum wage of
$7.25 an hour, and could take regular breaks in a shady
area provided by the farm--including a lunch break. I was
told exactly what constituted a full bucket of tomatoes
when I was working on a "piece," or per-bucket basis.
For some of my work, I would get an extra penny per
pound for the tomatoes I picked--which amounted to a
50-percent raise. I was informed that sexual harassment
would not be tolerated. And finally I received a card
with the number of a 24-hour confidential help line. "If
you see a problem, talk to someone--your friends, your
boss, us, anyone, just say something," said Lucas
Benitez, one of the members of the Coalition of
Immokalee Workers (CIW), a grassroots labor rights group
that was responsible for the lesson. Until this year
none of my classmates, many of whom were veteran tomato
workers, had ever attended a session like this one,
where their fellow workers outlined their new rights and
responsibilities under the CIW's Fair Food Code of
Conduct as employees of Pacific Tomato Growers, a major
corporation that markets its products under the brand
names Sunripe and Suncoast.

Last November, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a
cooperative of agribusinesses that grow the vast
majority of Florida tomatoes, signed the Fair Food
agreement with the CIW. The CIW had been working since
1993 to improve the lot of farm workers. With a few pen
strokes, the Florida tomato industry went from being one
of the most repressive employers in the country (nine
cases involving abject slavery in Florida fields have
been prosecuted in the past 15 years) to being on the
road to becoming the most progressive groups in the
fruit and vegetable industry.

"You cannot believe how big a change it has been," said
one CIW member, recalling that the last time she had
tried to gain entry to Pacific's facility in the
mid-1990s, she'd been met by locked gates and armed
sheriff's deputies. "It's like a time machine has
suddenly whisked us from a Charles Dickens workhouse to
an auto plant in the 21st century. The difference in
attitude is that great."

After signing the agreement, the growers and CIW members
decided that the 2010-2011 growing season would be a
transitional year. Two companies--Pacific and Six
L's--would work with the CIW to create a template for how
the words of the agreement would be translated into
actions in the fields. The course I attended was one
result of those efforts. The plan is that all 33,000
Florida tomato pickers will receive similar training
next year. Together, the workers group and the growers
also decided what would constitute a full bucket of
tomatoes. They instituted a safety program that includes
regular breaks in shady areas, establishes a complaints
line, banned all forms of sexual harassment, and took
steps to ensure that any incidents of slavery were
identified and prosecuted.

Every major fast food chain and food service corporation
has agreed to the Fair Foods principles and, as a key
part of the deal, has begun to funnel an extra penny per
pound for the tomatoes they buy directly to workers. But
unfortunately, a single dark cloud still hangs over the
efforts of the CIW and the growers. With the notable
exception of Whole Foods Market, not a single
supermarket chain has come aboard. Supermarkets buy
about half of Florida's tomatoes, so they represent an
enormous amount of lost wages to workers. The
noncompliance of the grocery giants also deprives the
workers of the moral and financial suasion that such
large buyers can exert to make growers adhere to the
agreement.

In recent months, the CIW has intensified its efforts
against grocery chains, holding a series of
demonstrations at Publix Super Markets, Stop & Shop,
Giant Food Supermarkets, and Trader Joe's. "We didn't
come this far by fainting if companies didn't come to
the table the first time we called," said the
coalition's Greg Asbed.

Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at
Gourmet magazine. His work on a dairy farm and fishing
boat taught him that writing about food was easier than
producing it. (c) 2011 The Atlantic All rights reserved.
View this story online at:
http://www.alternet.org/story/150708/ [w1]

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