The Florida Tomato Industry and The Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Immokalee tomato pickers -- Thanks to Scott Robertson for the use of this photo.

***The following piece was written for Two Dancing Buckeyes by a guest blogger named Margaret Gleeson who worked with Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, a partner organization to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, from 2008 to 2011. She’s also related to one of the dancing buckeyes.  An important part of reclaiming our food is understanding where our food is from and how it’s produced.  We appreciate the work that Margaret has done to impact the tomato industry and her willingness to share what she has learned.***

It’s November, which means tomato season is just starting up— in Florida that is. Thousands of farmworkers who have spent the summer months harvesting produce in northern states are now making their way back to Immokalee, Florida, the country’s tomato production hub from November to May.

While many of us have had the pleasant experience of picking fresh tomatoes in our backyards, Florida farmworkers find a very different atmosphere in the fields. Immokalee tomato pickers are paid piece-rate wages—they receive an average of 50 cents for every 32 pounds of tomatoes they pick, meaning they have to pick approximately 2.25 TONS of tomatoes to make minimum wage in a 10-hour work day. Lacking traditional work-place protections, they are denied shade and water, endure dangerous pesticide exposure, suffer from sexual harassment, and have no right to report abuses for fear of being fired. In the worst cases, farmworkers are forced into modern-day slavery— Florida’s fields have seen nine federally prosecuted slavery cases in the past thirteen years involving over 1,200 workers.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a grassroots farmworker organization is working to change this situation—and they’re succeeding!

In 2001 the CIW launched the Campaign for Fair Food—a farmworker led effort to improve wages and working conditions in the fields. Focusing on Yum! Brands (parent company of Taco Bell and a major buyer of Florida tomatoes), the farmworkers called on the fast-food giant to pay one penny more per pound for their tomatoes to directly increase farmworker wages, and to support a stringent code-of-conduct in the fields. People of faith and students across the country joined with the farmworkers in this campaign, and four years later Taco Bell signed the first Fair Food Accord.

Now nine major corporations, including the leaders of the fast-food and food-service industries (and a single supermarket – Whole Foods), have signed agreements with the CIW. As a result, almost exactly one year ago, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE – representing 90% of the tomato growers in Florida) signed a groundbreaking agreement with the CIW! This season farmworkers throughout Florida will begin to receive the penny-per-pound wage increase from participating buyers as a bonus in their pay checks. Even more importantly, 90% of the Florida tomato industry is committed to implementing the worker-designed code-of-conduct which guarantees workplace rights for those who pick our produce. Workers now have access to shade and clean drinking water in the hot Florida sun, the right to form health and safety committees, a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and forced labor, and a reliable complaint-resolution system to report workplace abuses.

While these exciting changes give us hope for a more humane, more sustainable agricultural industry, they are still new and therefore very fragile. With the commitment of fast-food and food-service leaders, the last remaining sector of the food industry to put its support (and purchasing power) behind the Campaign for Fair Food is the Supermarket Industry. At this critical point in Florida Agriculture, it is vitally important that the supermarket industry commit to fair wages and working conditions for those who work in their supply chains.

Therefore, this harvest season, the CIW will push forward with their Supermarket Campaign—in particular, calling on Trader Joe’s to be a leader in the industry, live up to its ethical reputation, and support Florida farmworkers. This Thanksgiving, if you’d like to honor those who work to bring produce to tables across America, consider delivering a manager letter to your local TJ’s calling on the grocery store to sign a Fair Food Accord. (You can find a letter here: http://www.ciw-online.org/Resources/tools/manager%20letters/TJLTR.pdf).

If you’d like to learn more about Florida tomatoes check out the fantastic book by Barry Estabrook, TomatoLand. To learn more about the CIW and get involved in the Supermarket Campaign visit http://www.ciw-online.org or feel free to e-mail me via Two Dancing Buckeyes at twodancingbuckeyes@gmail.com.

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