Putting the Squeeze on Tomato Growers to Improve Conditions for Farm Workers

In Immokalee, Fla., hundreds of day laborers work in the tomato fields. Bon Appetit Management promises to boycott Florida tomatoes if growers do not agree to improve conditions and increase pay for these workers.
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

IMMOKALEE, Fla. -- Appalled by instances of what federal prosecutors have described as slavery, executives of one of the nation's largest food service companies promise to boycott Florida tomatoes if growers do not agree to improve conditions and increase pay for farmworkers.

Bon Appetit Management today will issue a strict set of standards that farm worker advocates call a "rough draft" of the future of fairly produced food. If no grower agrees, the company is set to stop serving tomatoes on salad bars and sandwiches at its more than 400 college and corporate cafes across the country.

The growers "can do the right thing, and our five million pounds of business can go to them," said Fedele Bauccio, Bon Appetit's chief executive. "Or they can let the tomatoes rot in the fields."

Bon Appetit's decision is the latest salvo on a new front of the sustainable-food wars: social justice. While most consumers associate sustainability with local or organic food, companies such as Bon Appetit, a division of the Compass Group, and Whole Foods Market are starting to define the concept more broadly. In part, they are responding to pressure from labor organizations. But promoting workers' rights is also crucial in establishing and defending green credentials. Bon Appetit has built its brand around sustainability: Its chefs spurn meat pumped with antibiotics, serve only eco-friendly seafood and aim to buy 20 percent of their produce from farms within 150 miles of their cafes. The company already acknowledges the importance of fair labor practices for products such as coffee and bananas. Why not demand the same of domestic agriculture?

Bon Appetit executives were aware of the plight of Florida tomato pickers. But it wasn't until they received a letter from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a South Florida farm workers organization, in January that they discovered that the tomatoes they'd purchased in winter came from Florida. (In summer, the company buys tomatoes from smaller, local farms.)

For eight years, the coalition has targeted fast-food giants including Burger King, McDonald's, Subway and Yum Brands, which owns Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell, among others. In 2001, the coalition led a boycott of Taco Bell. Students succeeded in booting 20 franchises off college campuses. CIW's demand: that each company sign a code of conduct and pay workers an extra penny for every pound of tomatoes picked. Workers are paid 45 cents per 32-pound bucket, the same wage as 30 years ago.

Eventually, each company agreed to the wage increase, the equivalent of a 74 percent raise for each worker. But many workers never saw the money. In 2007, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a trade association that says it represents more than 90 percent of state production, barred its members from passing on the increase to workers. The CIW estimates that as much as $1.5 million is being held in escrow.

On April 15, Bauccio and company vice president Maisie Greenawalt flew to Immokalee, headquarters for the state's tomato industry. The town center is a large parking lot where growers arrive at about 5 a.m. to pick up day laborers and bus them to the fields. Workers live in rickety trailers or single-story concrete buildings that are not much different from when Edward R. Murrow filmed his 1960 documentary, "Harvest of Shame."

Bauccio had a clear message. He was willing to pay the extra money. But he wouldn't be satisfied if it didn't get to the workers. He also wanted to improve conditions, not just pay. Over the past decade, there have been seven slavery convictions in Florida involving farmworkers. Last year, six people were convicted of imprisoning more than a dozen men in boxes, shacks and trucks. The workers were chained, beaten and forced to work. Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy called it "slavery, plain and simple."

"If no [grower] steps up, then I have to respond to my customers and not serve tomatoes," Bauccio told coalition leaders. "We'll tell them, 'The reason you're not getting tomatoes is because of the situation in South Florida.' " His clients would be ready to give up tomatoes for a good cause, Bauccio added, just as consumers gave up grapes in support of C├ęsar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the 1960s.

The CIW staff was wary of the plan. Five million pounds of tomatoes might sound like a lot, but it isn't enough to put a large grower out of business. The CIW estimates that McDonald's buys about 20 million pounds a year; Subway buys even more. If a boycott hurt anyone, they worried, it would be farm laborers, who would lose their daily wage. The CIW advised Bon Appetit to use its buying power to reward growers that meet higher standards and punish those who don't.

The two sides came to terms on a strict code of conduct. Similar to the document agreed to by the fast-food companies, Bon Appetit's code forbids forced labor and physical violence or harassment. And it adds sweeping new requirements.

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