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FORT MYERS — Immokalee farmworkers marched through the streets of Fort Myers on Sunday, chanting for fair pay and human rights in the fields.
They had religious leaders, students and food industry professionals from throughout Southwest Florida by their side.
Even so, the support they sought from Publix didn’t come as they embarked on the first leg of their 200-mile, two-week “March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food.”
About 150 people marched behind a large truck with a megaphone leading chants that included “What do we want? Fair pay. When do we want it? Now.” They held signs including those that read “One cent more” and “Fair Food.”
The rally began at Lee County’s Terry Park as the group embarked on the first three-mile stretch of the eventual full march to Publix Headquarters in Lakeland, stopping Sunday afternoon at a Publix on McGregor Boulevard for about 30 minutes.
The march is part of an ongoing, approximately four-year effort by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to get the Florida-based grocer to honor the farm labor reform known as the Fair Food Program.
The Fair Food Program unites farmworkers, growers, consumers, and 11 multibillion dollar retail food leaders, including Publix’s competitors Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, in support of fair wages and humane labor standards for tomato harvesters.
The program enjoys support of about 90 percent of the tomato growers in Florida’s $500-million tomato industry, but the Immokalee workers want corporations to join the program and not purchase or sell tomatoes from any farms who are not in the program.
The food program ensures rights, such as bathroom access, freedom from sexual abuse and harassment, as well as freedom from slavery and unpaid work for more than 30,000 farm workers, according to prepared statements from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
The “penny-per-pound” bonus ensures fair pay so farm workers are no longer the only type of employment to earn less than the Federal minimum wage, workers said.
Publix maintains it will pay the penny per pound, repeating over the years to “put it in the price.”
“We believe it is the responsibility of all our suppliers — including Florida farmers who grow tomatoes and other produce — to manage their own workforce, including paying wages and providing work conditions that comply with federal and state laws. If farmers need to increase the price of their goods to get this done, then that is a necessary business cost we would pay as part of making our purchases. This is what we mean when we say ‘Put it in the Price,’” wrote Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten in an email to the Daily News on Sunday afternoon.
Participants in the Fair Food Program pay for tomatoes the way they always have. That means, with the choice to pay a penny per pound more in that price or to be invoiced an extra penny per pound with that money being monitored and distributed by a third party, according to a statement from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
The Rev. Jim Boler of Fort Myers said the Publix “Put it in the price” response is misleading as the Fair Food Program is seeking to do just that if Publix would join the program.
Boler and wife Rev. Sandra Boler of United Church of Christ, both now retired, have helped unite churches in the cause for more than 13 years.
“If Publix were on board there would be fair labor in the fields. It’s simple things like bathrooms and shade, time clocks,” said Jim Boler. It’s also protection for the hands and mouths of women digging in the chemical-laden dirt, workers said.
Unfair wages are being paid to both legal and illegal immigrants, making immigration an indirect issue, Jim Boler said.
“All people are valued in God’s eyes. Immigration reform is needed but while that is happening, you don’t kick farm workers or hurt them. Publix has some great programs helping people, why not take leadership for farm workers?” he asked rhetorically.
Publix corporate leaders were on-site, standing just feet away in suits, but not engaging in conversation with the marchers. Police blocked streets and also stood nearby.
Sandra Boler was pleased to see it was a very peaceful demonstration; no fighting and not even a loud protest, just a call for support of basic human rights, she said.
Lucas Benitez, 37, of Immokalee, said he is proud to be a farmworker. He’d be proud for his two children to be farm workers.
“These farm workers are willing to lose two weeks of work because it’s not just about today,” Benitez said.
“It’s about generations to come. We have good conditions in our fields now because of this program, but we’re not precisely sure which farms Publix is buying their tomatoes from.
Silvia Perez of Immokalee described years of injustices and intimidation in the fields, particularly against women.
“We want Publix to put their purchasing power to farms who otherwise would be happy to keep bad conditions that have always existed,” Perez said.
“We want Publix to come to the table and do the right thing like so many other companies are doing.”