Over the years, The Nation and I have closely tracked the heroic work ofthe Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) as they have fought to protect agriculture workers in the fields of Florida from exploitation. CIW has exposed cases of slavery and worked with the Department of Justice to successfully prosecute them. It has carried out a Campaign for Fair Food to raise wages and improve working conditions. In short, it has led a movement that recognizes the dignity of the people who harvest the food we eat, and rewards and protects their labor.
In recent years, the organization has focused on obtaining "penny perpound" pay raises for tomato workers from major food retailers that purchase the produce. It doesn’t sound like much, but it would result in about a 75 percent wage increase–from $10,000 annually to $17,000–significantly improving workers’ living and working conditions, and making them less vulnerable to unscrupulous employers and traffickers. CIW struck penny per pound deals with McDonalds, Burger King, and Yum! Brands (whose subsidiaries include Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver’s and A&W) after long, hard fought campaigns.
But the community-based farmworker organization has reached a new milestone with its latest victory.
On Friday in Capitol Hill, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis attended a press conference along with representatives of CIW and the world’s largest food service company, Compass Group, to announce that the company will pay an extra 1.5 cents per pound of tomatoes that it purchases annually, with one cent per pound going directly to the farmworkers. Compass Group purchases over 10 million pounds of tomatoes every year, and serves 6 million meals at over 10,000 locations every day.
But the key difference between this agreement and previous ones is that Compass Group will only purchase tomatoes from Florida if there is a grower or growers willing to implement the pay raise and a "code of conduct" which includes: a system of clocking in and out to accurately record working hours; the ability of workers to voice labor and safety concerns without fear of retribution; freedom for CIW to educate workers on their rights on company time and at the worksite; and third party auditing for full transparency. If no Florida grower were to step up to these Fair Food standards, Compass Group would remove tomatoes from its menus and use the absence to educate customers about the working conditions that led the company to make this decision.
In the previous agreements brokered by CIW, the food retailers didn’ttake this extra step of mandating that they would only purchase fromsocially responsible growers. That’s significant because the FloridaTomato Growers Exchange (FTGE)–a trade association representing over90 percent of the state’s growers–has threatened to fine any grower$100,000 for every worker that receives a penny per pound raise. Theresult? Growers refused to pass along the monies owed to thefarmworkers so approximately $1.5 million is now held in escrow by thefood retailers.