From Bradenton.com, Christine Hawes, email@example.com, 3 Sept 2011.
Group seeks fair wage for tomato pickers
MANATEE FL — Midge Barnes is a satisfied Publix customer and has been for years — except when it comes to tomatoes.
“I never buy tomatoes there, and I tell the clerk why every time I go through the line,” said Barnes. “I want the farm workers to have a living wage the same as I do.”
She joined farm workers and members of the Fort Myers-based Interfaith Action Group of Southwest Florida Friday afternoon in a picket outside of the Publix on State Road 70 just west of Interstate 75. The store was the latest stop in a 200-mile bicycle trip undertaken by the workers, who belong to the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, to spotlight Publix, the state’s largest supermarket chain.
Publix has declined to sign on to the coalition’s Fair Food Initiative, which has gained the support of four major fast-food chains and four of the nation’s largest food service companies. One of the initiative’s main features is a fund to which participating corporations — which include McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and Airmark — to donate one penny per pound of tomatoes purchased.
The fund is intended to ensure tomato pickers in Florida receive at least minimum wage for their work. The initiative also includes a commitment from participating companies not to do business with tomato growers who do not follow a code of conduct that includes assurances like shade, water and clocked hours.
Participants in Friday’s picket included members of the Manatee United Methodist Church and the Faith United Church of Christ, both of which sponsored meals for the bike riders. The group held signs bearing sayings like “Farmworkers Suffer, Publix Profits.”
To picket leaders and participants, the issue is clear-cut: Unless the state’s largest tomato purchasers, including Publix, join on to the Fair Food Initiative, the few growers out there who don’t pay their workers a living wage or follow the code of conduct will have no incentive to change.
“Publix provides a market for those who would turn a blind eye to the abuses,” says Jordan Buckley, a staff member of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, which organized the bike ride.
But according to Publix and those in the tomato growing industry, the situation is more complex.
Shannon Patten, a spokesperson for Publix, said the Fair Food Initiative amounts to asking companies to “pay another company’s workers.”
“We can’t do that,” she said. “What we are saying is, charge more for the tomatoes. Put it in the price, and we will pay the market value.”
She said that’s the arrangement by which the coffee bean industry handled concerns about low wages for its workers. “They asked us to pay more for the product, and we did,” she said.
Patten also said the coalition is directing its concerns over working conditions toward the wrong entity. Local, state and federal agencies are where the coalition should be taking its concerns about slavery-like working conditions, she contended.
Some involved in the tomato growing industry have different perceptions than both Publix and the coalition over the situation for Florida tomato pickers.
Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, said 90 percent of the state’s tomato growers are committed to the coalition’s code of conduct, and that the vast majority of growers have followed minimum wage requirements for decades.
Whatever heart-wrenching reports have emerged about slave-driven tomato pickers have come from “rogue” members of the industry, Brown said.
While he described Publix’s decision not to contribute to the fund as “a business decision that Publix has a right to make,” he did say the company’s stance asking growers to increase their prices was not a viable one.
“We are in a competitive market that is flooded with imports that are not subject to the regulatory environment that we are,” Brown said. “In order to be a competitor in the marketplace, we are not in a position to add cost to the price of our product.”
Ben King, a small local grower who raises tomatoes that his family sells privately, says “people with good hearts” like the Interfaith group and its supporters are reinforcing a needless sense of powerlessness among farm workers.
He said there is an overabundance of tomato pickers who are willing to work for paltry pay, when they don’t have to.
“For the workers to act like they completely have their hands tied, it drives me insane,” said King, adding that he pays his workers $8.50 to $11.50 an hour. “The fact of the matter is, the growers that I know negotiate a price with the crew leader and the crew. If the crew doesn’t like the price, they need to go somewhere else. They shouldn’t assume they have to take a low wage and just grin and bear it.”
Christine Hawes, Herald business writer, can be reached at (941) 745-7081.