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Robert Trigaux

Florida tomato picker coalition wins more wage gains, looks ahead at Publix Super Markets




Wake up and good morning. The 4,000-member Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group committed to improve the pay and working conditions of Florida tomato pickers, forged a three-way agreement late last week with East Coast Growers and Compass, the world’s largest food-service company. Florida’s tomato business is a $400 million industry. (Photo: Florida tomato pickers, Bill Serne of the St. Petersburg Times.)

The raise means their annual earnings could rise from about $10,000 to between $16,000 and $17,000. Compass will pay a penny and a half more a pound for all tomatoes it buys annually. One cent goes directly to the workers; the other half-cent covers administrative costs. Tomato harvesters will now earn 82 cents for each 32-pound bucket they pick, up from 50 cents per bucket.

Compass also agreed to require a strict code of conduct including a time clock system, worker education, worker input and third-party auditing. It pledged only to buy tomatoes from suppliers that agree to the raise and work standards. Read the details here in the Fort Myers News-Press story.

In a Washington, D.C., ceremony Friday, Compass joined the three biggest fast-food companies — Yum Brands, McDonald’s and Burger King — and Whole Foods (here's a Venture blog post on the Whole Foods deal in June), the largest natural food grocery chain, to sign the agreement.

In a breaking of the ranks, the News-Press reports, East Coast  Growers, Florida’s No. 3 grower, chose to drop out of the powerful tomato industry group, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, in order to pay the increase. The Exchange has refused to pass on the wage gains and threatened to fine any member — 90 percent of the state’s growers — that did.

What's next? According to the News-Press, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers wants to pressure Publix Super Markets to also pay a penny more and improve workers conditions. In October, the grass-roots farm worker group will visit southwest Florida stores, asking to talk about the tomatoes Publix sells and handing out leaflets to customers.

Publix buys tomatoes from Pacific Tomato Growers and Six L’s. Last year, members of the Navarrete family went to federal prison for enslaving 12 men they forced to work on those growers’ farms, according to the News-Press. Here's a more detailed story and also St. Petersburg Times columnist Bill Maxwell's 2002 take on modern slavery in Florida's agriculture worldPublix spokesperson Shannon Patten told the newspaper in an e-mail that "Publix has a long history of non-intervention in disputes between suppliers and their employees. Unfortunately, I don’t have any additional information that would be helpful."

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:26am]


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