In Tampa hundreds call for Publix to pay an extra penny per pound of tomatoes

03/07/11 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 “Fair Food” 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 “brutal conditions.”

Ramiro Ramirez is one such worker. He’s picked tomatoes all throughout the state of Florida and claims there are atrocities happening in the fields.

“There is sexual harassment, poverty, modern day slavery,” said Ramirez who works and lives in Immokalee. “Picking tomatoes is very different from a typical office job. You start your day much earlier and even though you’ve been picking tomatoes for perhaps 12 hours, you may only make $50 for the day.”

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.

“So 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 workers’ wages. The three largest food service providers that have likewise signed these agreements. And now it’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 can’t get involved in the production of each product. She says this is a labor dispute between the farm workers and their employees.

“As far as the pay, employers are required to pay minimum wage and if they’re not paying making minimum wage, again, that’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.

“We can’t pay the workers directly. They’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,” Patten said.

“They’re saying that they want it to be put in the cost of their tomatoes. That’s how these agreements work,” Buckley counters. “It’s basically something they’re saying to confuse people.”

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 “unimaginably harsh conditions.” Buckley, who lives in Immokalee, says Publix needs to ensure good working conditions.

“Recently Publix was asked about potential human rights abuses in their supply chain. And what their spokesman said was, quote, ‘if there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business,’” Buckley said.

“It is your business," says Lenise Joseph, a student at Florida Gulf Coast University, referring to Publix. “It’s your store. You can’t just turn a blind eye and ignore us. You’re dealing with actual people, people that bust their butt everyday to pick the foods that we buy and eat. You can’t ignore us any longer.”

Joseph was born and raised in Florida. She’s a long time Publix shopper since she was "just a wee newborn.”

She came to this weekend’s protest carrying a sign that says Justice for Farm Workers.

For its part, Publix says it’s unaware of a single instance of slavery in its supply chain.

“Slavery is a criminal offense," says Publix’s Shannon Patten. "If there were those things going on, we would immediately tell them to contact their local, state and federal agencies.”

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 he’s already started shopping at Publix. He says he wouldn’t mind paying an extra penny per pound.

“That’s nothing," Barnes said outside the Publix store on Dale Mabry. "That’s a drop in the bucket. One cent shouldn’t put a dent in Publix profits.”

Barnes said he’s not sure if learning about the protesters’ demands will affect whether he buys tomatoes at Publix, but he’ll think about it.

For farm worker Ramiro Ramirez, he hopes the protest sends a clear message to Florida shoppers: “People in Florida should know that Publix is not a responsible neighbor and they don’t care about the conditions from which their tomatoes come.”

Previous WMNF coverage of Immokalee workers

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