Improving Worker Conditions with a Penny a Pound

Most of us know that tomatoes come from vines, but few are actually aware of the story fro behind the juicy red fruit that we often find at our dinner table. In fact, most people can only trace their tomato’s heritage as far back as the supermarket. Therefore, this spring, wanting to learn more about the story behind the famous fruit and the process it takes to bring it from the vine onto my plate, I took a trip to Immokalee, Florida, as part of Tucker Foundation’s Alternative Spring Break Program.

Immokalee is a small migrant town in Florida, about 30 miles inland from wealthy beach resorts such as Naples and Fort Meyers. According to the New York Times, it is a town of “taco joints and backyard chicken coops where many farmworkers still live in rotting shacks or dilapidated, rat infested trailers.” The rent to live in a single trailer exceeds their income, so most live as multiple families under one very small roof in packed and deplorable conditions. Although in recent years, “affordable” housing communities have been built in the Ommokalee area, the majority of these homes cost between $80,000 and $100,000, a hefty price tag that new migrant families cannot afford. Immokalee stands in stark contrast to the wealthy beach resorts only 30 miles away, and it is not a huge stretch to say that it almost resembles a town in a developing country.

Although Immokalee is generally reasonably safe, it nonetheless gets it share of crime and violence. In 2008, a case of modern day slavery was discovered in the center of the town where a group of undocumented migrants were imprisoned in a trailer house and forced to work against their will in fields for no pay. For many years, lack of labor inspection made migrant workers in this community extremely vulnerable to unethical working conditions. Indeed, until recently, migrant workers were forced to catch a bus to work at 4 a.m. but would only receive compensation for hours logged after 8 a.m. During the hot and humid summers, workers, not permitted to take breaks, suffered hardship under the grueling conditions. Verbal abuse, including racist remarks and discriminatory behavior, was widespread as the unregulated farms at which they worked were largely free of any government oversight.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, focused on advocating for better conditions for migrant farm workers, has been educating local farm workers about their rights and protections under the Fair Food Code of Conduct. Their efforts led to the creation of the Fair Food Program, a unique worker-led, market enforced social responsibility program which aims to address issues of unfair wages and sexual assault in the fields. Sexual assault, violence, and unfair wages, is not unique to Immokalee and has plagued farm worker communities around the world. Indeed it is estimated that 50 to 80 percent of all female farmworkers have been sexually harassed while working in the fields according to the Huffington Post.

The Fair Food Program involves over a dozen major food retailers, including Wal-Mart and Whole Foods, who have signed on and committed to only buying tomatoes from trusted and verified producers that provide safe and fair working conditions. Additionally, the retailers that have agreed to participate in the Fair Food Program have pledges to pay one more cent per pound of tomatoes with the money going directly to supplementing the tomato pickers wages. The companies have also pledged to drop any suppliers that violate the standards of the program.

In the past 10 years, the program has had considerable success. By having as many large retailers sign on as possible, tomato producers are left with no choice but to abide by the new regulations. Consumer and retailer pressure has made the program incredibly effective and migrant workers have directly benefited from the program. There has been a significant reduction in the amount of reported sexual harassment cases in the fields. Thanks to the additional penny per pound, the tomato pickers are paid an additional $60 to $80 a week, amounting to an additional $4 million a year received by tomato pickers according to the New York Times.

Although the Fair Food Program is not perfect, it sets a precedent for future change. The Fair Food Program currently applies only to tomato producers and there are many large retailers that have yet to sign on whose presence would greatly solidify the program. However, Industries worldwide can learn a lot from the Fair Food Program. Hailed but the New York Times as “one of the great human rights success stories of our day,”  it has demonstrated the substantial impact consumers and retailers can have on improving the well being of workers around the world.

While marching in Lakeland, FL against Publix, a major food retailer in Florida, I was amazed to see the spirit and will of the community where the national movement was initially born. Marching for three miles, they chanted, “Up, up with the fair food nation; down down with the exploitation,” unified in their strong commitment to fight for what they know is right.