THE TALE OF TOMATOES — THEIR JOURNEY FROM THE FARM TO YOU — SHOULD BE A LOVE STORY.
The French used to call the red fruit pommes d'amour, or apples of love. But rather than romance, this story started on sun-scorched earth, where workers were abused. Tomato pickers have written the story’s chapters: there’s justice, change, triumphs, setbacks, federal investigations and a protest at a Nashville Wendy’s.
WE WERE VIEWED AS MACHINES
Unpaid hours. Physical and sexual abuse. Wages revoked by bosses. Tomato farms in Florida have been called “ground zero for modern day slavery.” Before advocates began revealing the conditions on farms, many tomato workers – almost entirely immigrants from Mexico and Central America – picked in brutal conditions.
“You were affected by pesticides, hot temperatures, violence that was systemic in the fields,” said Nely Rodriguez, a tomato farmer and activist in Immokalee, Fla. Federal investigations into Florida’s farms in 2007 revealed workers were held against their will and charged money to use a garden hose as a shower.
Farm worker exploitation was the routine.
“A bus would pick us up at 4 a.m. in a parking lot where a bus would come to take us to the fields, but you wouldn’t start working until 10 or 11 in the morning. The time before starting to pick was unpaid,” said Rodriguez.
In the 1990s, workers were paid about 30 cents for picking a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. This means most workers were struggling to earn more than $10,000 a year for back-breaking work, as reported by The Sun Sentinel.
“We received pressure on our wages. There was pressure to ‘cup’ our buckets to add a few extra pounds to the standard 32 pound bucket by filling it over (the brim). If it was recommended by your supervisor and you did not comply, you could (maybe) not be paid for that bucket you picked,” she said.
Workers have said pesticides, sprayed from tractors onto the plants touched by workers, cause headaches, earaches, burning eyes and rashes. The Naples Daily News reported a farmworker couple settled a lawsuit in 2008 with Ag-Mart Produce Inc. claiming that pesticide exposure caused their son to be born without arms or legs. The couple said the company did not wait long enough after spraying the tomato plants before sending workers back into the fields.
“The way you were treated as farm workers was often one of humiliation. We were often viewed not as human, but as machines,” Rodriguez said.
WORKERS LEAD CHARGE TO CHANGE
The conditions on Florida tomato farms were first brought to light in the early '90s by the pickers who suffered at the hands of their employers.
“The reality is to make that food possible it means a difficulty for the workers that pick it,” Rodriguez said.
She is part of a group of workers who call themselves the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Farms in the town of Immokalee, two hours from Ft. Lauderdale, produce nearly every Florida tomato found in American homes, grocers and fast-food chains. (Florida and California lead in producing America’s tomatoes.)
The group, which began organizing tomato pickers in 1993, has steadily led the charge to improve the working conditions and lives of workers through grassroots activism and shedding light on the deplorable working conditions.
The CIW first worked to increase tomato pickers’ declining wages. Tomato farmers are paid by the piece, a rate that has been virtually stagnant for 30 years. By 1998, the coalition had secured 13-25 percent raises for farmworkers, but the current piece rates keep tomato pickers from earning less than half of what they earned 30 years ago. The alliance also battled involuntary servitude (Over the past 15 years, nine major investigations and federal prosecutions have freed over 1,200 Florida farmworkers from captivity and forced labor) and helped to pioneer anti-human trafficking work.
Earlier this year, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders shed light on the group’s work in a campaign video that aired on the Spanish-language channel Univision. Eight years ago, Sanders traveled to the Immokalee farms after hearing farmworkers’ stories about “hell on earth.” He brought their plight to his colleagues in Washington and, as reported by In These Times, he eventually gathered support from other lawmakers to help the CIW hold fast-food companies – those pushing the demand for Florida tomatoes – accountable.
GOING AFTER THE GIANTS
In 2011, the CIW launched the first-ever farmers’ boycott of a major fast food company – Taco Bell – and four years later, Yum Brands (which owns Taco Bell, KFC, Long John Silver's and Pizza Hut) agreed to meet all of the coalition’s demands to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers.
The landmark contract eventually led to the groundbreaking Fair Food Program (FFP), a partnership among farmers, farmworkers and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions for the workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms.
Other major fast-food names and supplies have signed on to the FFP: McDonald's in 2007; Whole Foods, Burger King and Subway in 2008; food suppliers Compass Group and Bon Appetit Management Company in 2009; Sodexo and Aramark in 2010; Chipotle and Trader Joe's in 2012; Walmart in 2014; Fresh Market and Ahold USA in 2015.
Ninety percent of tomato suppliers in Florida have also joined the program, as well as farms in a handful of other states. Two farms in Florida that produce strawberries and green bell peppers have now partnered with the FFP. The farms are subject to ongoing auditing by the Fair Food Standards Council to ensure compliance with each element of the program.
“Through the FFP, all of those abuses are ending. For example, we were able to eliminate the unpaid wait time through the use of time clocks,” Rodriguez said. She’s been advocating with the CIW for eight years. “We’ve eliminated the ‘cupping’ of the buckets.
“We’ve developed a human rights code of conduct. The code has zero tolerance for forced labor, sexual assault and protects against violence in the fields and mistreatment of farm workers.”
Under the program, lauded by the The New York Times as “the best workplace-monitoring program” in the U.S., participants also agree to pay a penny-per-pound to workers – an initiative that has doled out over $22 million to farmers. Committees monitor workplace safety, and FFP participants provide tents for shade and accessible drinking water. Workers are educated about their rights during work hours and have access to a 24-hour hotline to voice any workplace issues.
WANTED: PUBLIX AND WENDY'S
Publix and Wendy’s are two major food enterprises that have declined to join the FFP.
The CIW claims that Publix has refused to answer the group’s six-year pleas for fair food practices, despite legal troubles with Red Diamond Farms, one of the store’s major tomato suppliers based in Florida. Earlier this year, the U.S. Dept. of Labor ordered Red Diamond to pay $149,572 in back wages to 380 of its workers. Before this, the CIW says the DOL helped workers at Tomato Thyme (Red Diamond’s parent company) recover $60,000 in unpaid overtime and minimum wages. Still, the relationship between Publix and Red Diamond seems to be intact: In April, Publix posted a marketing video to its social media showing a Publix employee walking on a tomato farm with a Red Diamond employee.
The Wendy’s Company, which claims to be a leader in processes focused on “wholesome food supply,” has ignored the CIW’s FFP, and in turn launched its own corporate social-responsibility code in November 2015. (Before making the code public, the chain claimed they didn’t need to join the FFP because they already participated in fair food practices.) The code of conduct is for suppliers doing business with the company’s independent Quality Supply Chain Co-op Inc., which covers more than 90 percent of the company’s food purchases.
Under the code, “Suppliers are expected to fairly compensate and provide wages, benefits and overtime premiums to their employees that comply with applicable laws and regulations,” but the code doesn’t outline sanctions for suppliers that fail to comply. “It is not a punitive Code, but an engaging one, that promotes collective, aspirational thinking and partnership between Wendy’s and our Suppliers,” it reads. The code also claims suppliers had input in the document’s creation, a claim the CIW refutes.
“(Wendy’s) code of conduct program shows no workers’ participation. It merely instructs suppliers to respect workers and treat animals humanely, but for us it means there’s no true protections in place for farm workers,” Rodriguez said. “Wendy’s refuses to take responsibility for these workers. They use these tomatoes on their sandwiches.”
In 2015, CIW stepped up its public pressure on Wendy’s to join the FFP, urging consumers to call Wendy’s headquarters and demand it sign onto the program. Caller after caller, as reported by Harper’s Magazine, was then informed that the fast-food giant was no longer buying tomatoes in Florida – it had turned to Mexico, where working conditions on farms have been described as subhuman.
Multiple media sources have confirmed that Wendy’s is sourcing its tomatoes through Kaliroy, an arm of the Mexican agro-giant Bioparques de Occidente. In 2013, nearly 300 workers were rescued from a company camp after Mexican authorities found they were being held in slave-like conditions.
The following year, Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Marosi traveled to the camp to see the conditions for himself. In a four-part series, he detailed the harsh labor conditions endured on farms of Bioparques de Occidente: workers were forced to work without pay, sleep in scorpion-infested camps, eat animal scraps and endure physical abuse. There were also reports of child labor.
“It is unacceptable that Wendy’s actively chose to purchase from a farm like this instead of committing to improving human rights in Florida fields,” Rodriguez said.
After being ignored by corporate Wendy’s, the CIW went back to a method that worked to win Taco Bell over to its program: the coalition launched a national boycott.
The fight against “Goliath with red pigtails” is underway, gaining steam with an online petition that has garnered nearly 50,000 consumer signatures. The boycott was recently endorsed by the National Council of Churches, United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Church (USA).
The CIW and its Fair Food allies launched its national “Behind the Braids” boycott tour in October, which kicked off earlier this month in Nashville.
Following presentations around town, group members led dozens of students, community members, local religious leaders and fair food partners in a boisterous protest at the Wendy’s near Tennessee State University on Oct. 4.
“People need to be more aware of what’s going on in the fields behind the tomatoes that they buy,” said Brenda Ayala, a part-time organizer with Nashville Fair Food (NFF), a local CIW ally. “There is a human being behind that tomato that we take for granted.”
Chants like “Get up, Get down, Fair Food has come to town” and “Your burgers may be square, but your food ain’t fair,” rang out on 28th Ave. N. Protest art, created at an earlier event hosted by NFF, was on display. Supporters of the boycott handed out flyers to passing cars, and even changed the minds of a few customers who were heading into the restaurant.
“It’s not just about helping farm workers, it’s about empowering people who need help self-empowering,” Ayala said.
Rodriguez traveled from Florida to Nashville to lead the boycott. “The people are going to win this boycott,” she said.
AN UNFINISHED STORY
“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say,” said journalist Italo Calvino.
In that case, the CIW’s story is a true classic – a modern day adaptation of David and Goliath.
The tomato farmers have educated their fellow workers about their rights, obtained higher wages and eliminated abuse on participating farms. They’ve revolutionized Florida’s agricultural industry. They’ve finally forced food industry giants to pay attention to who is picking their produce.
They know where the tomatoes in your grocery stores and fast-food meals come from.
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