Immokalee workers march for respect and fair food agreement

Picking tomatoes is arduous work. The pay is low and working conditions can be lousy. But the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) during the last two decades has made progress toward improving pay and conditions for the workers in the southwest Florida region who pick one-third of the tomatoes eaten by US consumers.

There is still a lot of work to do, and on March 3, CIW began a 200 mile March for Rights, Respect, and Fair Food in Fort Myers, Florida. The march will end on March 17 in Lakeland at the corporate headquarters of Publix, a Florida-based natural and organic grocery store chain.

“We are going to take our case directly to the consumers through our presence in the streets, through nightly meetings with supporters in churches, schools and community halls along the way, and through our voices in the media,” said Oscar Otzoy of CIW. “We will not rest until Publix realizes that the 21st century supermarket cannot afford to turn its back on human rights.”

CIW has been trying for more than two years to get Publix to sign a “Fair Food Premium” agreement by which large buyers of tomatoes agree to pay a penny more a pound for the tomatoes that they buy. The extra penny is earmarked specifically to raise workers’ pay. In addition, when buyers sign the Fair Food Premium agreement with CIW, the buyers agree to purchase their tomatoes from growers that agree to a strict code of conduct that includes accurately documenting time worked, providing workers with pay records, allowing workers to voice grievances without fear of reprisal, and regular third-party audits of working conditions.

So far 11 major tomato buyers including Taco Bell, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Aramark, Sodexo, McDonald’s, Subway, and Chipotle have signed a Fair Food Premium agreement with CIW.

CIW is hoping that the two-week march, which is taking place along Highway 41, a much traveled route along Florida’s west coast, will open the eyes of consumers and lead to more pressure on Publix to sign a Fair Food Premium agreement.

When the march began, Gerardo Reyes of CIW told a group of workers and their supporters that in addition to the 11 corporate buyers of Immokalee tomatoes, some growers in the region have signed on to the Fair Food Premium program and were supporting march.

Publix, however, continues to use “its power to demand the lowest possible price for their tomatoes in the market without concern for conditions that we as workers must suffer so that those tomatoes make their way from the fields to their stores,” he said. “Far too often, we must trade our dignity for work, for fear of complaining, because if we complain we can lose our job and with it our ability to provide for our families.”

CIW through collective actions such as boycotts and marches and vigilance has made some improvements in the fields. It exposed and helped the federal government prosecute slavery charges against some Immokalee growers.

It has also won better pay, improved working conditions, and respect for some workers.

But for many of Immokalee tomato pickers, who are mainly Latino, Mayan, and Haitian immigrants, the pay is low and conditions on the job remain grim. Workers who work a full day make between $20 and $30 a day. Female workers still face sexual harassment in the fields. Some workers still don’t have adequate bathroom facilities on the job. Other face the loss of work if they speak out about poor working conditions.

By signing a Fair Food Premium agreement, Publix could help ameliorate these conditions.

“We are going to march 200 miles, from this point to the city of Lakeland, where Publix’s corporate headquarters is located,” said Rivera to supporters on the eve of the march.  “We invite all of you to join us on this march, if possible, but if not, we ask for your prayers of support, in support of the workers in Immokalee.  And for those who can, we invite to you join us in Lakeland on the weekend of the 16th and 17th.  There we will have arrived after marching 200 miles to remind the wealthy owners of the Publix corporation that, though we are indeed poor, we too are human beings and we deserve respect and dignity.”

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