Migrant Workers Benefit From New Partnership

Migrant workers have long suffered through some of the most horrendous workplace conditions in the U.S. The groups that gravitated towards this kind of work, often those lacking education or English speaking ability, were among the most vulnerable and most likely to be subjected to abuse, harassment, harsh conditions and low pay.

Despite all the seemingly bad news, one group appears to have made remarkable progress in a very short amount of time, improving conditions for tomato pickers in Florida by leaps and bounds. Those who know say that the group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, has singlehandedly changed the work lives of its members from being among the worst in the country to among the best for agricultural workers. Wages were increased for more than 30,000 workers, mandatory breaks were created and abuse was reduced or nearly eliminated.

The CIW accomplished the seemingly impossible feat thanks to what’s known as the Fair Food Program. The program has worked by attracting an array of corporate partners to sign on and agree to encourage raised workplace standards. These companies then agree to pay tomato growers one penny more per pound, money that is passed directly to the migrant workers. The companies also promise to refuse to work with those growers who violate the standards set by the program.

The program has its roots in a boycott of Taco Bell back in 2005 that demanded the company pay more money for its tomatoes, an attempt to improve conditions for migrant workers slaving away for the fast food giant. That boycott ultimately succeeded and Taco Bell’s parent company, Yum Brands, signed on to the Fair Food Program. Later, CIW succeeded in attracting the support of Burger King, Trader Joe’s, Subway, Chipotle and Whole Foods. The biggest success though is the recent decision by Wal-Mart to only buy tomatoes from those growers who are compliant with the standards set by CIW. Wal-Mart executives have said that it makes business sense to sell food that has been fairly grown and ethically sourced, something that more and more consumers are concerned about.

The cooperation of retailers has succeeded in pressuring growers into making changes they admit would not have happened otherwise. Growers are now installing break tents in fields, expensive safe water supply systems and workplace monitors who ensure that workers are treated with respect. In addition, the growers have made the important concession of paying the workers from the time they arrive at the bus to be transported to the fields rather than waiting for hours to start paying them once the picking begins. This one change has contributed to the estimated 20-35 percent rise in weekly pay for workers in the region.

The agreement unfortunately only extends to those workers in Florida’s tomato fields but there is real hope for other agricultural workers across the U.S. Because companies like Wal-Mart have signed on, the pressure that was initially applied on those in Florida begins to spread across the country. Already Wal-Mart says that it will push to spread the standards from the Fair Food Program to other growers located across the Eastern U.S., even extending to other crops such as apples and strawberries.

Source: “In Florida Tomato Fields, a Penny Buys Progress,” by Steven Greenhouse, published at NYTimes.com on April 24, 2014.

Source: “Walmart: 'The Most Important Force in Agriculture' Looking to Go green,” by Marc Gunther, published at TheGuardian.com on May 6, 2014.

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