From PalmBeachPost.com, John Lantigua, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer, 23 Oct 2011.
Life for migrant farm workers in the United States, including in South Florida, has always been pretty slim pickings.
But lately, some tomato pickers have benefited from agreements signed with many of the world’s largest fast-food companies – McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and Subway – that guarantee them increased earnings per pound of tomatoes sold to the restaurant chains.
Now, some South Florida harvesters who say they picked those tomatoes are claiming they haven’t seen the extra money and are suing.
Four lawsuits, filed separately in state circuit courts around the region, are aimed at the fast-food giants. But behind the scenes, the case pits two respected organizations against each other that have long worked to further the interests of migrant workers. After years of espousing the same cause, the advocates are facing off.
The Florida Legal Services Migrant Farmworker Justice Project of Lake Worth represents the plaintiffs, while the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which negotiated the increased-earnings agreements with the four firms and other tomato buyers, says the fast-food companies have honored their agreements with farm workers and have done nothing wrong.
“It’s hard to figure out where Florida Legal Services could possibly be coming from with this lawsuit,” the coalition website states. “The accumulated money was paid by the restaurant companies and distributed – to farm workers, through the growers – just as intended and agreed upon. If that weren’t the case, we’d be the ones suing.”
Who got the extra money?
Justice Project attorney Greg Schell disagrees. The lawsuit lists 16 plaintiffs who say they picked tomatoes between 2007 and 2010 under agreements with the fast-food companies, but did not receive the increased pay. The class-action suit represents a larger but unspecified number of workers who may be in the same position.
“If the agreements were meant to benefit the workers who picked tomatoes for those companies, then why didn’t they get the money?” Schell said. “Who did get it? How much is it? And where is the legal agreement that allows it to go to someone else?”
Verite, a nonprofit based in Amherst, Mass., that promotes fair labor practices, said it has audited the amount owed by the firms and that all money has been paid. So the ultimate issue appears to be who ended up with the extra money – which Schell estimates at $2 million – and why.
The agreements were signed separately between the coalition and each company between 2005 and 2008. They called for an extra 1.5 cents for each pound of tomatoes purchased by companies enrolled in what is called the Fair Food Program.
The money was to be paid to tomato growers, who would take 0.2 cents to offset increased payroll taxes and funnel the other 1.3 cents to the workers. But in 2007 the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange temporarily pulled out of the agreement, and, until that situation was rectified in late 2010, the extra money was not paid to either the growers or workers.
According to the coalition, the fast-food firms continued to track the money earned by tomato pickers. Taco Bell donated some of that money – $225,000 – to the Harry Chapin Food Bank, which is active in the farm town of Immokalee.
The other companies, according to the coalition, waited until the impasse with growers was settled and distributed the accumulated money to the tomato pickers working in the fields at that time.
‘Show me agreements’
According to Schell, that is a problem. The workers in the fields at the time the dispute was settled were not necessarily the workers who picked the tomatoes between 2007 and 2010. He said nothing was done to find those former workers.
The coalition said the payments were not back wages, but bonuses for workers employed at the time and that there was no other way to do it.
“Given the migrant nature of the work force, the astronomical turnover in the fields and the amount of money that would inevitably be wasted attempting to locate long-gone workers, mostly without success, any effort at retroactive distribution would have made no sense at all,” the organization said.
Lawyers and paralegals paid to find workers would have ended up with much of the money, the coalition added.
“And so, it was agreed that the accumulated money would be distributed, in the form of a bonus, to the workers in the industry at the time the growers ultimately relented,” the coalition said.
“Then show me the agreements. Show me where it says that was where the money should go and I’ll go away,” Schell said.
But the coalition said it can’t do that. The agreements are confidential because they contain proprietary information about each firm’s supply chains.
Also, making such agreements public might discourage other restaurant or supermarket companies from entering into pay agreements with the coalition.
“The more buyers paying into the program, the more bonus money goes directly to the workers,” said Lucas Benitez, a coalition leader.
“While these lawsuits are completely baseless, they will nonetheless provide those supermarket chains that have not yet signed on to the Fair Food Program, including Publix here in Florida, with an all-too-convenient excuse to avoid doing so. And that will directly cost farm workers money.”
Schell said he and his clients still want their day in court.