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, 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 grass roots labor rights group that was responsible for the lesson.
Until this year none of my classmates, migrant laborers 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 who grow the vast majority of Florida tomatoes, signed the Fair Food agreement with the CIW. The organization 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 involving Florida tomato, citrus, and other crops 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, bans all forms of sexual harassment, and takes 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 it buys 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 Greg Asbed of the coalition.