LAKELAND — More than 100 people, including Immokalee tomato workers and supporters wearing blue, white or gold armbands, lined the entrance of Publix Corporate Parkway on the first day of a six-day fast to get Publix Super Markets Inc.'s attention.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their supporters want the Lakeland-based company to end what they call "disingenuous rhetoric" and sign the coalition's Fair Food Agreement. Under the agreement, Publix would pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes harvested by the Immokalee workers.
Ten corporations have signed the Fair Food Agreement, including McDonald's, Burger King, Whole Foods Markets and Trader Joe's. The group said it has also reached out to most major supermarkets across the country, including Walmart, Kroger and Stop and Shop, but has not received any response.
Holding signs that read, "I go hungry today so my children won't have to tomorrow," the protesters said they hope Publix Super Markets chief executive Ed Crenshaw will come out and talk with them. A Publix spokesperson said he will not.
"For over three years, Publix has refused to even talk to us, and we're here so that our families don't continue to suffer from hunger," said Oscar Otzoy, a farmworker and one of the leaders of the Immokalee group.
Tomato harvesters make insufficient wages to provide for their families, he said. Without the extra penny from corporations signing the Fair Food Agreement, workers make 50 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes, a wage they say hasn't changed in more than three decades. To make at least the minimum wage of $7.67 an hour, a worker has to pick about 153 buckets on a 10-hour day, Otzoy said.
"Publix refuses to recognize the humanity of those who harvest the tomatoes sold in their stores," Otzoy said.
The workers said they've been subjected to mistreatment, sexual harassment and, in a few extreme cases, modern-day slavery where workers are held against their will. The coalition has helped authorities successfully prosecute at least six cases of farmworker slavery between 1997 and 2010.
But Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said Publix is unaware of any slavery or underpayment in its supply chain.
"If they're saying they're not making minimum wage, that's against the law and they should go to the authorities," she said.
Publix has said on numerous occasions this is a labor dispute between the farmworkers and their employers, and it doesn't want to be dragged into it.
"We have a long history of not intervening in those disputes," Patten said, reiterating that the company is willing to pay the extra penny per pound if included in the price of the tomatoes.
But the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and its supporters, including members of the National Council of Churches, local religious leaders and students, are dissatisfied with Publix's position.
"We want to see Ed Crenshaw answer the phone and say, 'Yes, I'll talk to you,' " said the Rev. Michael Livingston, director of the Poverty Initiative of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.
Livingston, who traveled to Lakeland from Trenton, N.J., to join the fast, said that by staying out of the agreement, Publix enables the continuation of abuse in the farms.
"And this is unjust and immoral," he said.