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Throwing Tomatoes

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Issue: 35 Section: Agriculture Geography: USA Florida, Immokalee Topics: labour, migration, food security

March 30, 2006

Throwing Tomatoes

Field workers in Florida target McDonalds buying policies

by Carole Ferrari

Field workers are paid pennies a pound for tomatoes picked. photo: CIW

After winning a four year long boycott against Taco Bell for better wages and an enforceable code of conduct, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community of tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, is now targeting McDonald's.

The CIW and its allies are campaigning for McDonald's to negotiate socially responsible working conditions directly with them-- the people who are directly affected by the McDonald's buying policies-- as Taco Bell agreed to do.

The deal made with Taco Bell requires the company pay one cent more per pound for the tomatoes bought from Florida growers. This increases the workers' wage by almost double, to about 2.3 cents per pound. The agreement also includes a tracking and enforcement process, along with consequences for growers who do not comply with the new policy.

McDonald's refuses to negotiate with the CIW, however, and instead, has signed onto Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE).

SAFE is a grower lead certification body made up of the member growers of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association and the Redlands Christian Migrants Association, the latter a childcare and education provider for migrant families. Growers that are SAFE-certified are required to abide by general labour standards. These standards are basically the standards already required by law.

SAFE is a very new organization that was created soon after the Taco Bell boycott ended. It did not include the CIW or any other labour organization when it formulated its standards.

"As it stands today, we believe SAFE cannot sincerely be said to hold any real promise for the expansion and protection of workers' rights," states the CIW. Rather, the CIW expresses concern that "SAFE stands as the primary barrier today to hopes for the continued expansion and protection of workers' rights created by the settlement of the Taco Bell boycott."

SAFE did not come from a concern for labour conditions on the field. According to Ray Gilmer, spokesperson for SAFE, it came from a concern for the reputation of Florida growers. "There was a realization that corporate grower responsibility was extending all the way down to the farm and companies like McDonald's would be asking for an assurance that workplace conditions are meeting certain standards."

Consumer awareness of the working conditions of tomato pickers has increased as a result of the CIW campaign, but the reputation of many Florida growers had been tarnished before the campaign.

Ag-Mart, a tomato operation with fields in Immokalee, is one such grower. According to Source Watch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, Ag-Mart was ordered by the Florida Department of Agriculture to pay $111,200 in fines in October for pesticide misuse.

These fines were the result of an investigation initiated by the Environmental Protection Agency in connection with the deformities of three children of Immokalee tomato workers. One baby was born with a cleft palate and facial abnormalities, another was born so disfigured that her sex couldn't be determined and died soon after birth, and a baby boy was born in December with no arms and legs. All three of the mothers worked for Ag-Mart during their pregnancies.

Ag-Mart has also hired Yolanda Cuello, wife of convicted slaver Abel Cuello Jr., as a labour contractor. Cuello was convicted of involuntary servitude in October 1999 for enslaving migrants. Workers at Ag-Mart say Cuello is the supervisor they see. Ag-Mart was contacted and directed the Dominion to their lawyer, who did not respond to requests for an interview. Ag-Mart supplies grape tomatoes to McDonald's.

The CIW's campaign for better wages and greater control of their livelihoods began by targeting the tomato growers themselves. With hunger strikes, marches, tours and intensive coalition building, the CIW fought for the improvement of their livelihoods. Despite these efforts, conditions did not change. "The growers are very protected from pressure from traditional labour organizing because farm workers are excluded from the National Labour Relations Act," explains Greg Asbed of the CIW. "Growers don't sell to the public. They were able to ignore us because consumer awareness has no impact on them."

The CIW realized that to change working conditions in the fields, they would have to target the buyers. The result was the Taco Bell consumer boycott, which resulted in increased wages for tomato pickers. This, in the face of extreme poverty, as noted by a United Nations special envoy to the community, is a small but important gain for the Immokalee workers.

Bridrigo Oregon, who left fieldwork for construction in 2002, describes the conditions he worked under. "You work in the sun, you run all day, 12 hours... I look at my people working hard. I tried to find a good job. I can't find a good job. I need vacation, I need benefits, but the company says 'no.' It's a big problem," he says. "One bucket of tomatoes is 40 cents. That's $45 all day! It don't make no sense to work for $45 a day."

Growers are concerned that these penny-per-pound deals, like the one made with Taco Bell, will scare away other large buyers like McDonald's, explains Gilmer. "We're worried [that] if enough of these penny-a-pound deals are crafted, then large corporate buyers will look at the extra money they're paying and see Florida as the higher cost provider. If this is not applied to the entire industry, including Mexico, a corporate accountant can say we need to buy somewhere else, not Florida."

The context for this concern is the North American Free Trade Agreement. Gilmer explains, "Just after NAFTA was signed, the Mexican government devalued the peso. It made it incredibly attractive to buy [in Mexico] and it hammered the industry [in Florida]."

A 2001 USDA report stated that labour costs in Mexico are markedly lower than in the United States. As of 2000, the daily wage rate of a farm worker in Mexico was $3.60 US compared to $66.32 US, earned by the farm worker in the United States.

In 2005, McDonald's revenues reached a record high of over $20 billion.

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