From NaplesNews.com, Tracy X. Miguel, 6 Sept 2011.
LAKELAND, FL — After pedaling 200 miles, Immokalee farmworkers didn’t get too far in reaching an agreement with the Florida-based supermarket giant.
“We are disappointed that Publix denied our invitation to visit Immokalee,” Oscar Otzoy, an Immokalee farmworker, said in Spanish on Tuesday.
Moreover, Publix refused the coalition’s request to raise the wages of farmworkers and support a new code of conduct, Otzoy said. The 27-year-old was one of six cyclists.
In Lakeland, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers wanted to invite Publix CEO Ed Crenshaw to visit Immokalee and personally learn more about the living conditions for farmworkers and the CIW’s Fair Food program.
However, Crenshaw was unavailable Tuesday to meet with workers.
Three members of the coalition, along with several volunteers, including members of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, an organization that works in conjunction with CIW, began their 10-day bike trip Aug. 27 from Collier County and arrived Tuesday morning to the Publix Supermarkets headquarters in Lakeland, where a group of about 30 people, including religious leaders, gathered to pray.
For more than two years, the coalition has demanded that the company improve working conditions for tomato pickers by adopting a code of conduct that includes a zero tolerance on slavery and by talking directly with the coalition about farmworker issues.
The coalition is seeking a commitment from Publix that demands tomato companies pay workers a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked. Workers are paid about 50 cents a bucket for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes, according to the coalition.
A penny would be an increase of about 64 percent of a farmworker’s pay, Otzoy said.
Although that may not be sufficient, it would be a relief for each family, said Otzoy, who sends money to his parents in Guatemala.
Shortly after noon Tuesday, a Publix official greeted the group and accepted their information.
Publix on Tuesday reiterated its stance on farmworkers’ wages. Shannon Patten, a Publix spokeswoman, said the extra penny per pound should be put in the price.
“We are more than wiling to pay a penny more per pound, or whatever the market price for tomatoes will be in order to provide the goods to our customers,” said Patten.
It’s up to tomato growers and packers to adjust farmworkers’ wages, she said.
“We suggest that they put the cost of the tomatoes in the price they charge the industry,” Patten said.
However, Otzoy said the penny is already included in the price and doesn’t understand why Publix continues to say that it isn’t.
As a retailer, Publix pays market value for their tomatoes and doesn’t determine what the price is, or should be. That price is set by the grower or packer, Patten said.
“We will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor. That is the responsibility of their employers. Employers should pay wages, not those outside of the employment relationship,” Patten said.
“This is a labor dispute and we simply aren’t involved,” Patten said in an email.
While Publix is the coalition’s current target, other companies have been approached before. The coalition has reached agreements to improve wages and working conditions for workers who pick tomatoes for Whole Foods, Subway, McDonald’s, Burger King, Yum! Brands and Aramark.
About 90 percent of Florida’s tomato farms have agreed to a new code of conduct, which brings a transformation of farmworkers’ wages and working conditions, Otzoy said.
Today, the coalition is asking the public and customers to send CIW supportive letters to Publix officials.
Connect with Tracy X. Miguel at http://www.naplesnews.com/staff/tracy_x_miguel/