Guest column: Anne Hartley ... The beat goes on for farmworker fairness

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“On the one hand, we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

So said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We remember Dr. King as the face of the civil rights movement, but he held a mirror up in front of us all, so we could see the isolation, racism and inequality in our so-called “free” society. Dr. King isn’t here to hold up that mirror any more, but others continue that work.

Over a decade ago, a farmworker community in the small town of Immokalee asked growers to provide more humane working conditions, and to pay workers one penny more per pound of tomatoes harvested. Growers rejected their requests, claiming the companies that purchase tomatoes from them would simply buy tomatoes elsewhere.

The farmworkers decided to reach out to the buyers to secure their cooperation, so growers would have the means to raise farmworkers’ pay.

Last week, the second-largest corporation in the world, on the 2013 Forbes Global 500 list, Walmart, with revenues of more than $470 billion and profits of $17 billion, joined the Fair Food Program (FFP). This innovative program of the Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers brings big buyers of tomatoes, Florida growers, farmworkers and an independent monitoring body, the Fair Food Standards Council, to the table to ensure workers are paid a living wage and have safe working conditions.

More than 90 percent of Florida tomato growers belong to the FFP. Program members work to end practices like requiring workers to overfill buckets, failing to supply clean water or allow breaks, abusing workers physically and, in the worst cases, enslaving workers. Growers add a “fair food premium” equivalent to one penny more per pound of tomatoes harvested to the price they charge their buyers. That premium is backed out of the price and appears as a line item on a worker’s paycheck.

Participating buyers in the FFP are grocery stores (Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods), fast food restaurants (Yum Brands, McDonalds, Burger King, Subway and Chipotle) and food-service providers (Bon Appétit, Aramark, Sodexo, Compass Group). Taco Bell (Yum Brands) was the first to join the program in 2005. Then-president Emil Brolick said, “With this agreement, we will be the first in our industry to directly help improve farmworkers’ wages, and we pledge to make this commitment real by buying only from Florida growers who pass this penny-per-pound payment entirely on to the farmworkers, and by working jointly with the CIW and our suppliers to monitor the pass-through for compliance. We hope others in the restaurant industry and supermarket retail trade will follow our leadership.”

Today, the same farmworkers ask Brolick again, as Wendy’s CEO, to join the program. Florida-based Publix has an opportunity to make history, too, as the first mainstream grocery store chain to join.

Dr. King recognized that it’s not enough to provide charity to the poor. We must make the Jericho road safe for future generations. The CIW and other members of the Fair Food Program are doing just that.

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