GOLDEN GATE ESTATES — Immokalee farmworkers and their allies carried signs and chanted Thursday outside a Publix in Collier County to call for the supermarket giant to pay more for tomatoes.
About 85 farmworkers with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, members of World Communion of Reformed Churches and other supporters gathered on the birthday of legendary farmworker leader Cesar Chavez at the Shoppes at Pebblebrook at the corner of Collier Boulevard and Immokalee Road in Golden Gate Estates.
“What we want is for Publix to be responsible for the farmworkers who pick their tomatoes,” Nelly Rodriguez, a coalition member and Immokalee farmworker, said in Spanish.
Supporters waved signs that read “Publix Profits from Farmworkers Poverty,” “Stop Exploiting” and “Justice for Tomato Pickers” during an hour-long protest. Several car horns honked in their support.
For more than two years, the coalition has demanded that Publix improve working conditions for tomato pickers by adopting a code of conduct that includes a zero tolerance on slavery and by talking directly with the coalition about farmworker issues.
The coalition is seeking a commitment to pay workers a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked. Workers are paid about 50 cents a bucket for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes, according to the coalition.
Shannon Patten, a Publix spokeswoman based in Lakeland, Fla., said the extra penny per pound should be put in the price.
“We are more than willing to pay a penny more per pound, or whatever the market price for tomatoes will be,” Patten said in an email.
“We suggest that they put the cost of the tomatoes in the price they charge the industry.”
But Jordan Buckley, staff member of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, said that’s how the program, which is currently used with other companies, works.
Instead, the repacker would charge the extra penny to Publix, and the extra penny then would be distributed to the growers and then to the farmworkers, Buckley said.
Gerardo Reyes, a CIW staff member and Immokalee farmworker, echoed Buckley.
Reyes said Publix would understand if its representatives sat at the table with the coalition.
“Publix will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor. That is the responsibility of their employers,” Patten said in an email.
“Employers should pay wages, not those outside of the employment relationship.”
As Publix has stated before, Patten said, this is a longstanding labor dispute and Publix doesn’t get involve in labor disputes between suppliers and their employees.
“We do not have a conflict with the CIW,” she said.
“The CIW is seeking to negotiate wages and working conditions of employment with the growers, and the CIW is trying to drag Publix into these negotiations.”
Publix, which buys from coalition-approved growers, is unaware of any single incident of slavery or violations of human rights existing in its food supply chain, Patten stressed.
While Publix is the coalition’s current target, other companies have been approached before. The coalition has reached agreements to improve wages and working conditions for workers who pick tomatoes for Whole Foods, Subway, McDonald’s, Burger King, Yum! Brands and Aramark.
Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church pastor Tom Harp said he doesn’t understand Publix’s resistance to the coalition’s requests.
“I hope they sign up quickly,” he said.
Among Publix shoppers who support the coalition’s demands was Annie Alvarez.
“They deserve the penny,” Alvarez said.
“It’s ridiculous. People really need to go see what they do.”
Alvarez added that she thinks the economy can support that.
Connect with Tracy X. Miguel at www.naplesnews.com/staff/tracy_x_miguel/.