Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Florida tomato workers get a penny per pound raise

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers won a historic agreement with the largest tomato growers in the nation. The CIW has fought for the tomato field workers in Florida, who are paid sub-poverty wages and are sometimes treated no better than slaves.

The Pacific Tomato Growers has agreed to give their workers a penny a pound raise. The raise will bring most workers annual salary from 10,000 to 17,000 dollars. The agreement also makes Pacific agree to a code of conduct in treating their workers.

From this The Nation piece that is hosted at NPR, writer Greg Kaufmann details the history of the CIW battle.

For those who have followed CIW's decade-long fight to raise farmworkers' sub-poverty wages and remedy oppressive working conditions — including slavery — this agreement marks the moment when a wall of denial maintained by the Florida agricultural industry came tumbling down.

When the Department of Labor reported "sub-poverty annual earnings," the growers denied it, claiming tomato harvesters averaged $12-$18 per hour.

When the USDA described farmworkers as "among the most economically disadvantaged groups in the US" with "poverty more than double that of all wage and salary employees," the growers maintained that they were performing a service by providing needed entry-level jobs.

When the Department of Justice worked with CIW to prosecute seven slavery operations in Florida over the last fifteen years, resulting in the liberation of over 1,000 farmworkers, the growers claimed that these were isolated cases and there was no need for systemic reforms.

When a detective with the Collier County Sheriff's Office testified in Congress that human trafficking in Florida agriculture was "probably occurring right now while we sit here" and the growers "isolate themselves from what is occurring, and benefit from what's going on," the growers insisted they were victims of a sophisticated public relations campaign ginned up by CIW.

A Senate hearing convened by Senator Bernie Sanders and the late Senator Edward Kennedy revealed that the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE), representing 90 percent of the state's growers, went so far as to declare that any members who implemented the pay raise would be fined $100,000 for every worker who benefited. So millions of dollars in checks that buyers were cutting directly to the workers languished in escrow. An industry that had profited from 300 hundred years of forced labor in Florida's fields wasn't about to allow its workers — who have no right to organize, no right to overtime, and no right to bargain collectively — to receive a pay raise from its customers, much less win a seat at the food industry table.

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