In Tampa hundreds call for Publix to pay an extra penny per pound of tomatoes listen03/07/11 Zack Baddorf
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Hundreds of farm workers and their supporters rallied outside the Publix grocery store on Dale Mabry Avenue in Tampa over the weekend, demanding better pay and working conditions for the 30,000-some tomato harvesters throughout Florida. The Coalition of Immokalee workers has asked the supermarket chain to sign a â€œFair Foodâ€ agreement for those producing the $620 million tomato crop.
The protesters walked along the sidewalks just off Publix property, singing, chanting, and waving signs. They claim Florida tomato pickers have long faced â€œbrutal conditions.â€
Ramiro Ramirez is one such worker. Heâ€™s picked tomatoes all throughout the state of Florida and claims there are atrocities happening in the fields.
â€œThere is sexual harassment, poverty, modern day slavery,â€ said Ramirez who works and lives in Immokalee. â€œPicking tomatoes is very different from a typical office job. You start your day much earlier and even though youâ€™ve been picking tomatoes for perhaps 12 hours, you may only make $50 for the day.â€
Indeed, the workers make about 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. That means they have to pick two and a half tons a day, to make minimum wage. That rate has not changed since the 1980s. Most tomato pickers earn less than $10,000 a year, working 10-12 hours a day.
The farm workers are asking for an extra penny for every pound of tomatoes. That could mean a $7,000 per year increase in wages.
Jordan Buckley with Interfaith Action says McDonalds, Taco Bell, Burger King and others have already agreed to pay an extra penny per pound.
â€œSo now we have the four largest fast food corporation on the planet that have signed agreements to pay this penny per pound to help raise farm workersâ€™ wages. The three largest food service providers that have likewise signed these agreements. And now itâ€™s up to supermarkets," said Buckley.
Publix competitor Whole Foods has also agreed to pay the extra cost.
Shannon Patten with Publix Supermarkets says Publix sells about 35,000 products in each store and canâ€™t get involved in the production of each product. She says this is a labor dispute between the farm workers and their employees.
â€œAs far as the pay, employers are required to pay minimum wage and if theyâ€™re not paying making minimum wage, again, thatâ€™s against the law. So we would assume that they would go to their government agencies, not to the local grocery store," Patten said outside the Publix store.
Patten says the extra penny per pound should be put in the price that Publix pays.
â€œWe canâ€™t pay the workers directly. Theyâ€™re outside of our employment relationship. Publix pays the Publix people. Their employer pays them. What we can do is pay the market value for the tomatoes. If you want to charge us more, go ahead,â€ Patten said.
â€œTheyâ€™re saying that they want it to be put in the cost of their tomatoes. Thatâ€™s how these agreements work,â€ Buckley counters. â€œItâ€™s basically something theyâ€™re saying to confuse people.â€
In addition to better pay, the workers also want a strict code of conduct, a complaint resolution system, and a participatory health and safety program. They claim there have been decades of farm labor abuse in Florida under â€œunimaginably harsh conditions.â€ Buckley, who lives in Immokalee, says Publix needs to ensure good working conditions.
â€œRecently Publix was asked about potential human rights abuses in their supply chain. And what their spokesman said was, quote, â€˜if there are some atrocities going on, itâ€™s not our business,â€™â€ Buckley said.
â€œIt is your business," says Lenise Joseph, a student at Florida Gulf Coast University, referring to Publix. â€œItâ€™s your store. You canâ€™t just turn a blind eye and ignore us. Youâ€™re dealing with actual people, people that bust their butt everyday to pick the foods that we buy and eat. You canâ€™t ignore us any longer.â€
Joseph was born and raised in Florida. Sheâ€™s a long time Publix shopper since she was "just a wee newborn.â€
She came to this weekendâ€™s protest carrying a sign that says Justice for Farm Workers.
For its part, Publix says itâ€™s unaware of a single instance of slavery in its supply chain.
â€œSlavery is a criminal offense," says Publixâ€™s Shannon Patten. "If there were those things going on, we would immediately tell them to contact their local, state and federal agencies.â€
There have been nine federally prosecuted slavery operations within Florida in the last 13 years.
Tampa resident Raymond Barnes is new to the area and heâ€™s already started shopping at Publix. He says he wouldnâ€™t mind paying an extra penny per pound.
â€œThatâ€™s nothing," Barnes said outside the Publix store on Dale Mabry. "Thatâ€™s a drop in the bucket. One cent shouldnâ€™t put a dent in Publix profits.â€
Barnes said heâ€™s not sure if learning about the protestersâ€™ demands will affect whether he buys tomatoes at Publix, but heâ€™ll think about it.
For farm worker Ramiro Ramirez, he hopes the protest sends a clear message to Florida shoppers: â€œPeople in Florida should know that Publix is not a responsible neighbor and they donâ€™t care about the conditions from which their tomatoes come.â€