Florida farmworkers and supporters refuse food for six days in hopes of better wages

03/06/12 Janelle Irwin
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Today farm workers and their supporters are in the second day of a six-day hunger strike in front of Publix corporate headquarters in Lakeland. About 60 members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and some of their allies are fasting to protest Publix’s refusal to participate in a program that would provide better working conditions and higher wages for workers who pick tomatoes. Previous protests have led ten companies to participate in the Fair Food program. Gerardo Reyes who works in the fields said that has already made an impact in many workers’ weekly pay.

“There is an increase in the bonus that have been – it has been distributed among a lot of workers in all the participating companies that are selling tomatoes to any of the ten participating buyers from the corporate world. We’ve seen bonuses from $30 to $50, in some cases over $100-150, up until $200 or more depending upon the amount of business interaction between participating buyers and the growers.”

The increase in wages comes from agreements made between companies like Taco Bell and, most recently, Trader Joe’s to pay an extra penny per pound for their tomatoes. And ongoing efforts by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have prompted the majority of tomato growers in Florida to agree to abide by a code of conduct. That includes better working conditions and ensuring that the extra penny per pound is passed on to workers. Michael Livingston is the director of the poverty initiative for the U.S. National Council of the Churches of Christ. He said it’s still not enough because conditions for workers are still sub par to what most people expect.

“The kinds of practices that are standard in American Labor as we know it and understand it and appreciate it, simply don’t apply. You can show up hoping to get work at 4 o’clock in the morning and not get picked up for one or two or three hours and that time that you’re there waiting when you’re away from your family is not counted in your wages though you’re, to some extent, committed to the company that hires you to work. They work long hours. They don’t have health benefits. They are poorly paid.”

Livingston said many of the workers don’t know what their rights are and don’t come forward about violations of labor standards. But he added that it’s not because the workers are in the country illegally.

“Even if they were, no one should be subjected to these kinds of living – working conditions, rather. No one should be under-paid. No one should be taken advantage of. There are cases, by the way, of sexual abuse of some of the women workers. So, under no circumstances should we be treating people like this even if they are illegal aliens. But I do want to make the point that that is not the norm here. The people that you see out here – these workers – they have workers’ permits, they have permanent residency status. This is not an issue of illegal immigrants. This is a labor issue, not an immigration issue.”

Publix spokesperson Shannon Patten maintains that the grocery chain will not give in to the group’s request. She said that’s because with so many products sold in their stores, getting involved could open a flood gate for other disputes. Patten did say the company would be willing to give to a charity that would benefit the workers if the proper process was followed.

“Sometimes it’s our associates putting the sweat equities behind the dollars and sometimes it’s making the donations to these organizations. There are many that we support in the town of Immokalee and many of the farm workers benefit – or their families benefit – from the generosity of both Publix and Publix Supermarkets charities. But this is different. This is a labor dispute. They are not part of our direct workforce, but they are our neighbors and citizens of a shared community and we’ve always encouraged our suppliers to work closely with their workforce and their workforce’s representatives on any issue.”

Her claim that this issue is a labor dispute is dismissed among members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. As they filled up on water and passed the time by coloring and listening to live music, CIW member Nely Rodriguez met with supporters. Through a translator she called Publix’s reasons for not participating in the Fair Food program, nothing but excuses.

“And Publix has had many excuses that they’ve told the public about why they’re refusing to participate in the Fair Food program, but as the Tampa Bay Times editorial by Bill Maxwell said this Sunday, their excuses are very disingenuous. They’re saying that this is a labor dispute when really it’s not a labor dispute. We’re working together with 90% of the tomato farms in Florida. Also, Publix has been saying that we want them to pay farm workers directly, which is not the case. There are 10 companies that are already paying the premium for their tomatoes in the way that they normally buy there tomatoes and the tomato growers are the ones who pay the workers.”

According to Rodriguez, workers would have to harvest and haul a bucket of tomatoes every four minutes in order to reach minimum wage. And she said filling a bucket takes longer and longer each trip as tomatoes become increasingly sparse, but the situation is getting better.

“Historically, farm workers have received about 50 cents for every 32 pound bucket of tomatoes that we pick and right now, thanks to the Campaign for Fair Food, farm workers are starting to receive an increase in pay due to the companies that are now participating in the extra penny per pound.”

Even though there has been an increase in wages, members of the CIW still aren’t satisfied. Lucas Benitez said Publix has more buying power than many of the companies who have agreed to participate in the program. He isn’t convinced by Publix’s claims that they have tried to encourage companies to work with their employees.

“Well, when Publix says that they buy from farms that are participating in the Fair Food program it’s untrue and you only have to go to the produce aisle in your local Publix to see that. In fact, Publix is buying from the very few farms that are not participating in the Fair Food program and in fact creating an alternative market so that farms where this sort of exploitation, sexual harassment, other types of severe abuse are flourishing, those are the exact farms that Publix in fact is buying their tomatoes from.”

More than 100 people are participating in events throughout the week even if they are not fasting. The hunger strike will continue until Saturday. Then they will have a three mile procession from the Publix on Harden Boulevard in Lakeland back to Publix headquarters. There, the 60 or so fasters will finally eat during a ceremonial bread breaking. Protesters can be identified by arm bands; fasters are wearing white ones. Medics, wearing red arm bands, are also available to ensure no one gets sick.

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