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Tomato growers agree to system to boost pickers' pay

Tomato fields like this one in Immokalee are picked almost entirely by migrant workers, whose three-year standoff with growers ended Tuesday when a system was approved to boost pickers’ wages. It also frees up money that has been sitting in escrow.

BILL SERNE | Times (2006)

Tomato fields like this one in Immokalee are picked almost entirely by migrant workers, whose three-year standoff with growers ended Tuesday when a system was approved to boost pickers’ wages. It also frees up money that has been sitting in escrow.

MIAMI — Florida's tomato growers have decided to do their part to pass on increased wages to the migrant workers who pick the tomatoes.

The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange on Tuesday announced a new program that will allow for the implementation of higher wage deals reached in recent years by companies like Burger King, Subway, McDonald's and Whole Foods.

It puts to an end a standoff that has been going on for more than three years.

"This is an opportunity to partner with our customers and meet their social accountability needs," said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which represents about 75 percent of all tomatoes grown in Florida.

While the restaurant chains and retailers had reached agreements with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to allow for higher wages, those increases had never been implemented because the growers refused to participate. Most of the money has been sitting in bank escrow accounts.

The growers argued for years, including at congressional hearings, that a third party couldn't legally dictate the terms of its workers' employment. They threatened fines against any members who participated. And they complained there was no way to track who picks tomatoes that ultimately end up on a Burger King Whopper or a Subway sandwich.

Now, the growers have finally come up with another solution. Each restaurant or retail chain will decide on a weekly "supplemental wage" payment to be made to the grower based on the amount of Florida tomatoes it purchased. The payment will also include an additional 15 percent for administrative, insurance and payroll tax expenses.

The growers will divide the total money among the migrant workers on the payroll that week, giving each one a pro rata share based on the number of hours worked. The program goes into effect immediately.

"This program doesn't have any connection to who picked what," Brown said. "If a customer chooses to enhance the income of my workers, we're willing to pass those dollars along. This is a way that it can be done fairly and simply."

The growers have also agreed to regular audits to ensure that the amount of tomatoes purchased and the supplemental wages are accurately reported and allocated to workers. Growers also must follow a new code of conduct that includes a system for migrant workers to pursue complaints against their employers.

Tomato growers agree to system to boost pickers' pay 02/16/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 6:56am]
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