A move to get farmworkers more money is being touted by Florida’s tomato growers as a step in the right direction.
But activists say the gesture doesn’t go far enough.
The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE), an agricultural cooperative of the state’s tomato farmers, announced Tuesday that as a result of customer negotiations, co-op members would offer a new social responsibility program that would include supplemental wages for workers and a code to guide employment practices.
Exchange Vice President Reginald Brown said the program is open to all retail and food-service customers of participating exchange growers, who represent about 75 percent of all fresh-market tomatoes grown in Florida.
The participating growers agree to pass through supplemental wages to their employees’ funds earmarked by their customers. The program also includes a new grower code of conduct designed to dovetail with their customers’ own social responsibility programs.
In addition to general employment practices, the exchange’s new code of conduct includes a system for migrant and seasonal workers to pursue work-related complaints. It also sets up an educational program to ensure workers understand their rights related to wages, hours and a safe workplace free of violence and harassment.
“We are committed to this program, made possible through negotiations with our customers,” Brown said. “It allows us to meet our own standards, our customers’ expectations, and those of their customers and stakeholders.”
In October, the Exchange rescinded its policy prohibiting members from participating in wage-supplementation programs or providing payroll or personnel data to third parties for the purpose of wage supplementation, paving the way for the new program.
That move came after the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange was taken to task by U.S. senators in 2008, for saying that a penny-per-pound raise was impossible.
According to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Florida tomato pickers earn an average of 45 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes, a rate that has not risen significantly since 1978. As a result, workers today have to pick more than twice the number of buckets per hour to earn minimum wage as they did in 1980. At today’s piece rate, workers have to pick over 2-1/2 tons of tomatoes just to earn the equivalent of Florida minimum wage for a 10-hour workday.
In a written statement, Lucas Benitez, with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said growers are “embracing” the penny-per-pound program and “calling it their own.”
“The Campaign for Fair Food is comprised of two key elements — a penny-per-pound raise and a code of conduct based on worker participation,” Benitez said. “What the FTGE has done is to accept the raise but to very carefully delete from our code any provision that creates an opportunity for workers to participate in the protection of their own rights. A complaint system and worker education simply aren’t credible if they’re controlled by the growers. In the end, the growers’ code leaves the foxes squarely in charge of the henhouse. And sadly, Florida tomato growers have never demonstrated the ability to police themselves.”
As to how the actual program works, Brown said based on the agreement with the grower, the participating customer determines the amount to be passed through to employees according to how much Florida product it has purchased from each grower during a given week.
A check for that amount, plus another 15 percent for administrative, insurance and payroll tax expenses, is sent to the grower or growers. They in turn deposit the pass-through amount into an escrow account and the administrative portion into their company’s operational account.
The additional wages are paid from the escrow account to all of the growers’ migrant and seasonal employees based on the number of hours they worked. It would be displayed on their paychecks as a separate line item.
In essence, each customer would determine the amount of supplemental wages to be paid to farmworkers, Brown said.
The growers and their customers would also agree to be audited regularly to ensure the amount of tomatoes purchased and supplemental wages are accurately reported and correctly allocated to workers.
“Florida’s tomato growers believe that fair wages, safe working conditions, education and improved housing are meaningful, long-term ways to help improve the lives of farmworkers and their families,” Brown said. “We are proud to be part of this solution with our customers.”
However, the coalition isn’t convinced.
“We’ve seen this before, and it doesn’t end well,” said coalition member Gerardo Reyes.
In 2006, Reyes said the growers came out with their own code of conduct by the name of SAFE, and they swore up and down that they would monitor their own behavior and protect their workers’ rights.
In spite of that program, Reyes said another brutal slavery operation came to light in SAFE-certified fields.
“Quite simply, the stakes are too high to trust the FTGE to protect our rights as workers,” he said. “We have to work together to get this done right.”
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Connect with Elysa Batista at www.naplesnews.com/staff/elysa_batista