Victory for Florida tomato pickers, or a sneaky worker-around?

Many months ago, thanks to a vigorous, multi-level campaign, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) secured pledges from big buyers like Burger King, Subway, McDonald’s and Whole Foods to pay an extra penny a pound to Florida’s tomato harvesters, bringing the per-bucket wage from 50 to 82 cents. (Workers earn about $50 on a good day, without health insurance or other benefits.) But the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange refused to allow the increase, arguing that a third party couldn’t legally dictate the terms of its workers’ employment and threatening to punish any grower that went along with the agreement between the CIW and the big buyers.

On February 16, there was a rather big news announcement that received surprisingly little coverage. The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange announced that its members have changed their minds and will be paying a “supplemental wage” to workers, with the amount to be decided by the restaurant or retailer, reported the Miami Herald (hat tip the Rural Blog). Growers will divide the total supplemental wages among all workers each week, based on hours of work.

Sounds good, right? Yes and no. The Herald quotes a statement by Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the CIW, saying that while “a wage increase is important, it can’t be a license for continued labor abuse.” The agreement includes a stipulation that growers also must follow a new code of conduct that includes a system for migrant workers to pursue complaints against their employers, but “that leaves the foxes squarely in charge of the henhouse,” warns Benitez. “And sadly, Florida tomato growers have never demonstrated the ability to police themselves.”

An editorial in the Fort-Myers Press agrees:

The problem is that the social responsibility program which the coalition worked out with McDonald’s, Burger King and other food retailers was crafted with worker participation. On the other hand, the FTGE’s program excludes worker participation through the coalition, or otherwise.…It is critical that customers educate themselves on whether the retailers they patronize are supporting the coalition’s Campaign for Fair Food, as well as other sincere, independent campaigns to ensure fair pay and humane conditions for the agricultural workers who harvest what we eat and drink.

The Fair Food Project has an excellent video series on the need for these campaigns, and what you can do to support fair trade at home.

More background about the tomato workers’ struggles:

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