IMMOKALEE — It’s been a long road for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, but the worker advocacy group took a “significant step forward” Wednesday by signing its first agreement with a major tomato grower.
Pacific Tomato Growers and the coalition announced that they have agreed to create an accounting system to pay workers the extra penny-per-pound the group has fought for in its Campaign for Fair Food. The agreement also includes a complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program and a worker-to-worker education process.
“It’s important for the workers, it’s a very big change,” said Leonel Perez, a member of the coalition, in Spanish. “Today they’re paying about 50 cents per bucket, and the amount that we ask for is a penny per pound. … There are 32 pounds in a bucket, so that’s 32 cents more for each bucket — 82 cents per bucket.”
Currently, the group is targeting Publix Supermarkets, asking them to commit to the penny-per-pound program. Making regular wages, farmworkers get paid about $50 for picking 100 buckets of tomatoes, or 3,200 pounds. If they get an extra penny per pound for every tomato picked, they’ll make $82 for picking the same amount.
Farmworkers might not get quite that much right away if all companies purchasing from Pacific Tomato Growers haven’t agreed to pay a penny more per pound, but ultimately, that’s the goal, said Jordan Buckley, a member of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida who works with the coalition.
The workers will soon see extra money in their paychecks from Pacific Tomato Growers, Perez said. The coalition plans to speak with workers at the company’s Immokalee farms on Thursday to tell them about the wage increase, as well as their rights and responsibilities under the agreement.
In the past, coalition representatives weren’t allowed on the grower’s property to speak with workers, but now they are welcomed and that’s an important change, Perez said.
“Pacific Tomato Growers believes that it is time to speak out publicly about working conditions in agriculture,” said Jon Esformes, operating partner of the Palmetto-based grower, in a prepared statement. “We along with many other responsible agricultural firms work daily to provide safe and fair working conditions, yet continued abuses within the industry demand that we speak out.”
Esformes also issued a call to other agricultural companies to join in their effort to protect farm employees, saying that they “must have the same protections as people working in the white collar world.”
The coalition began organizing workers in 1993 and in 2001 started its Campaign for Fair Food, demanding fair wages and better working conditions for farmworkers. They have made agreements with nine food retail companies including Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King and Whole Foods.
For years, however, the extra penny-per-pound those companies agreed to pay was not passed along to farmworkers because the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange prohibited its members from participating. The exchange contended that the penny-per-pound program included potential anti-trust law violations and could expose growers to federal fraud charges, said Reggie Brown, vice president of the exchange, in a U.S. Senate hearing in Washington in April 2008.
In February 2010, the Maitland-based grower group changed its policy, allowing its members to participate in the penny-per-pound program. In a statement on the organization’s website Brown said that their intent had never been to prevent the workers from receiving the money, but rather to avoid legal problems.
“Our dream is to have this raise and these workers’ rights for all farmworkers,” Perez said. “Now we are focusing on asking the supermarkets to collaborate with us, especially Publix, because it is local in Florida. If Publix would pay one penny more, more workers would be able to receive this raise.”