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Farm worker rally marches through South County

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image The Fair Program aims to draw large corporate support for increased pay and better conditions for tens of thousands of farm workers in the state. Photo Mitch Traphagen

The march was held to bring focus to the organization’s Fair Food Program, a farm worker and consumer driven initiative primarily consisting of a wage increase supported by a price premium paid by corporate purchasers of Florida tomatoes.

By Mitch Traphagen

On a Tuesday morning with rain coming down in occasional bursts, several dozen people, escorted by state law enforcement vehicles, walked from Ruskin to Riverview, part of a larger 200-mile journey, to bring attention to the plight of farm workers.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization representing approximately 5,000 farm workers in the state, organized the march. The march was held to bring focus to the organization’s Fair Food Program, a farm worker and consumer driven initiative primarily consisting of a wage increase supported by a price premium paid by corporate purchasers of Florida tomatoes. It is also a human rights campaign with a code of conduct developed by farm workers, growers and corporate buyers to form a foundation of social accountability.

Picking tomatoes is not an easy job. Days are spent in sun-saturated fields filling five-gallon buckets, which are then carried to a waiting truck and tossed to a person on the truck. That step is repeated, hour after hour. Each bucket is worth pennies, a day’s pay is based not on a minimum wage, but strictly on the amount of work, on the number of buckets filled.

The focus of the march was multifunctional; however, Publix in particular was singled out, with the hopes of pressuring one of Florida’s largest companies into supporting wage increases for the thousands of farm workers in Florida. From Publix’s standpoint, they say they are happy to pay an additional penny per pound if that is what the growers decide to charge. Despite that, Publix has repeatedly stated that they have no interest in entering a labor dispute where they do not feel they should be involved.

Several restaurant chains and some specialty grocery store chains have committed to buying from growers that are a part of the Fair Food Program. Those corporations include Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Markets, Bon Appétit Management Company, the Compass Group, Aramark, Sodexo, Trader Joe’s and Chipotle.

For a grower, the corporate support does seem to provide some relief over fear that raising prices will drive their customers away to potentially cheaper, imported tomatoes.

According to the CIW, approximately 90 percent of the industry, employing 30,000 workers at any given moment during the harvesting season, participates in the Fair Food Program. And it involves more than just money, the program also includes an agreement of compliance with a code of conduct that includes zero tolerance for forced labor and systemic child labor, worker-to-worker education sessions conducted by the CIW on the farms on company time to ensure that workers understand their rights and responsibilities, a complaint resolution procedure that may include investigation, corrective action plans and, as a last resort, the suspension of a farm’s Participating Grower status, and thereby its ability to sell to participating buyers. It also includes a system of health and safety volunteers on farms and specific concrete changes in harvesting operations to improve worker wages and working conditions, including the practice of forced over-filling of picking buckets, a practice the CIW says has effectively denied workers pay for up to 10 percent of the tomatoes harvested. The program also calls for access to shade in the fields along with time clocks to record all compensable hours.

As one of the largest companies in Florida, Publix has long been the focus of the CIW in the hopes that the influence of the large company would swing the tide with other grocery chains. As the farm workers and rally supporters march up U.S. 41 from Ruskin to Riverview, a school bus followed slowly along, bearing a large banner with the words of Publix founder George Jenkins: “Don’t let making a profit get in the way of doing the right thing.”

Publix has long acknowledged that, “Farm work is hard work.”  The company says they value the work involved in getting farm products from the land to their customers’ tables. And they have stated they value the relationships with those people because they are providing a valuable public service. However, for the past four years their stance on the issue has remained the same:  it’s a labor dispute that simply does not involve Publix.

“Most of our stores offer an array of more than 40,000 products,” the company said in a press release. “Each product comes from a supplier, and with so many suppliers, we could literally be drawn into a potential dispute between an employer and their employee(s) at any time. This is not our place. We seek to do business with suppliers who can provide quality products to our customers and operate their businesses in order to provide an enviable workplace for their employees. In the past, we have eliminated suppliers who did not do this, and we would do so again. We expect our suppliers to follow the laws established to protect and promote a safe and healthful workplace for their employees, just as we expect our managers to be passionately focused on making Publix a great place to work for our 151,000 associates.”

Although several dozen marchers braved the rain and cool temperatures from Ruskin to Riverview on March 12, an estimated 1,500 joined for the last leg to Publix headquarters in Lakeland, completing the 15-day, 200-mile walk that began in Ft. Myers. According to the CIW, the additional marchers brought with them new energy to bolster those who walked every step of the long trip, providing an energetic end to the effort, complete with speeches, music and skits. On the last day were farm workers, students, religious leaders, consumers and other supporters. It was a successful end to a massive logistical effort that required securing housing, meals, medical support, law enforcement escorts and permits to march from multiple jurisdictions.

Publix was not involved in the march, nor have they officially commented on it. The marchers arrived on a Sunday, after all, when few headquarters employees were in the office. There were no confrontations; there was no war of words. The marchers celebrated what they described as a new day in the Florida tomato fields.

With anxious growers fearing economic challenges and foreign competition, workers toiling in the hot sun for pay that often struggles to meet minimum wage, and a company that says they have no say in the matter, it remains to be seen if that day has yet dawned.

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