Florida Tomato Pickers Announce New Deal With Growers To Improve Worker Conditions

Florida tomato pickers announce new deal with growers to improve worker conditions

By Laura Wides-Munoz
The Associated Press, October 13, 2010

A group representing Florida farmworkers and one of the country's largest tomato growers said Wednesday they reached an agreement that will finally guarantee higher pay and better conditions for the workers.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has successfully pressured major chains like McDonald's, Taco Bell and Whole Foods to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes, with the extra money going to the farmworkers. But the deal remained mostly remained on paper because Florida growers who supply the chains balked at implementing them.

The agreement announced Wednesday with Pacific Tomato Growers will be put into practice during the current growing season, which has already begun. The company employs about 1,500 workers at the height of the season. It sets up several measures, including:

* Establishing an accounting system to pay the extra penny to workers, with third-party auditing. (Farmworkers earn about 45 cents per 32-pound bucket picked.)

* Involving workers in implementing and promoting health and safety programs

* Creating worker-to-worker education program on employee rights

* Providing a system for workers to file complaints against their employers in which a neutral party can help resolve disputes.

Jon Esformes, an operating partner of Pacific, said in a statement that the company believes it is time to speak out publicly about working conditions in agriculture.

Palmetto-based Pacific is one of several companies owned by the Esformes and Heller families under the Sunripe Produce brand, and the agreement won't cover workers at Sunripe farms in California or Mexico.

'It is an absolute that farmworkers must have the same protections as people working in the white-collar world,' Esformes said.

Former President Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center in Atlanta has long supported the farmworkers, said the agreement 'clearly demonstrates that significant improvements can be made that benefit all parties if there is open discussion between employers and workers.'

Lucas Benitez, a co-founder of the coalition, lauded Pacific for coming to the talks with 'an open heart.'

Benitez said the deal is in many ways a first step.

'Today, Pacific and the CIW are embarking together on a road toward real social responsibility. And if that road leads us where we think it will, it will be a model for generations of farmworkers and farmers to come.'

The coalition, which claims membership of about 4,000 mostly migrant workers, gained national attention in recent years when it reached deals with some fast-food chains. Its most recent deal came with food service giant Aramark, which agreed April 1 to provide 1.5 cents more per pound of tomatoes and to abide by a supplier code of conduct.