Immokalee workers reach deal with Aramark

04/02/10 Seán Kinane
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The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has reached an agreement with another food giant to increase wages for tomato pickers. The food service company Aramark will pay an extra penny and a half per pound for tomatoes picked in Florida, and most of that premium will be distributed to the workers. We spoke with Marc Rodrigues with the Student Farmworker Alliance which advocates for the Immokalee workers.

The coalition is a grass-roots organization of farm workers down in Immokalee, a little town about two hours south of here; where the majority of people in Immokalee are farm workers, mostly working in the tomato harvest, and also in citrus and other harvests. And basically, what they’re trying to do is improve the working conditions and the wages that the farm workers are facing today, which is really nothing short of a crisis. You have a situation where people are paid by a piece rate that hasn’t changed in about 30 years, so you get paid about 45 cents for a 32-pound bucket. If you want to earn the equivalent of minimum wage in a ten-hour day, you have to pick more than two and a half tons of tomatoes, to put it into perspective.

In addition to that, as a farm worker you’re excluded from all sorts of basic protections and rights that other workers have, such as overtime, the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining—really, the right to have a voice in the industry. Never mind things like health insurance, or a pension, or anything like that. And so basically you have a climate where basic human rights are not respected, and you actually have the existence of cases of actual modern-day slavery. There’s been seven cases of slavery in Florida agriculture just in the last 12 years, involving a total of over one thousand workers.

And that’s slavery as defined by the federal government, where people are held against their will, beaten, threatened, other acts of violence are used against them, all to force their labor in the fields. And at the end of the week they’re paid little to nothing, and live in a constant climate of fear and intimidation.

Q. And you recently announced an agreement with Aramark. What is Aramark, and what was the agreement?

Aramark is a huge, multinational corporation that does, basically, food service, or dining services at universities, hospitals, even sports stadiums, and things like that. And the stipulations of this agreement are that Aramark is going to be paying a penny and a half per pound premium for the tomatoes that they get from Florida, most of which will be passed directly on to the workers, to increase their wages.

And also, Aramark has agreed to a stringent code of conduct that was developed with the CIW, with the coalition, with the workers themselves, which is going to give the workers, you know, a way to defend their human rights, and is going to include things like a zero-tolerance policy for modern-day slavery. Basically, it locks Aramark in to direct their tomato purchasing towards the workers that are trying to raise the standards and are trying to treat their workers better, and keeps Aramark from buying tomatoes from growers where different kinds of abuses are found to be happening.

Q. So this sounds like it’s even more of a deal for the farm workers than the previous deals that you can tell us about, with Taco Bell, with Yum Brands, that were for a penny a pound, right? What were some of your previous victories?

Right. This victory actually kind of builds upon some of the previous agreements that we’ve been able to reach. So since 2001, the coalition has been leading something that we call the Campaign for Fair Food, and has resulted in agreements with Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and other food service provider corporations, which is called this group. And then the most recent is Aramark. There are eight corporations in total that we have been able to get to work with the coalition today.

And again, these agreements basically stipulate, you know, the extra penny per pound, and the code of conduct, and the zero tolerance for slavery. The more recent agreements have a penny and a half per pound built in, because a little bit of that goes to the growers to help them cover, you know, the extra administrative costs associated with participating in these agreements, and kind of serves as a little bit of an incentive to get the growers to participate.

Q. And your current battle is with Publix. Where does that stand?

Yeah, for over a year now we’ve been trying to get Publix to do the same thing that eight other corporations now are doing. And unfortunately,. Publix is still refusing to do so, is still refusing to really address the concerns of the farm workers and of an every-growing number of consumers that are calling on Publix to do the right thing. And as a result of that, we’re actually organizing and getting ready for a big, three-day march that’s going to happen starting from downtown Tampa on Friday, April 16th, and going all the way out to Lakeland, where Publix has their national headquarters, for a big rally on Sunday, the 18th.

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Now it's Publix' turn

Come out to the Freedom March - Tamap to Lakeland - April 16-18: