By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009 2:34 PM
In what Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis called a "huge victory" for farm workers, one of the country's largest food service companies announced Friday that it will buy winter tomatoes only from growers that pay a fair wage and offer good working conditions.
The Compass Group, which buys 10 million pounds of tomatoes annually, will pay an additional 1.5 cents per pound for all the tomatoes it purchases; one cent per pound will go directly to the workers.
That might not sound like a lot. But it will boost workers' wages from 50 cents for a 32-pound bucket to 82 cents per bucket, a 64 percent raise. The decision, made in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a South Florida farm workers organization, also includes a strict code of conduct to monitor hours worked and employee safety. East Coast Growers and Packers, the third-largest tomato grower in Florida, has agreed to Compass's terms.
"The future of Florida agriculture is contained within this agreement," said Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the CIW. "It is a future founded on mutual respect and mutual benefit."
The Compass agreement is another sign of how American companies are expanding their definitions of sustainability. This year, Starbucks launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign trumpeting the ethical production of its coffee. In March, Unilever announced that all the tea sold under the Lipton brand had been certified by the Rainforest Alliance, a nonprofit organization that mandates worker welfare standards.
"It's no longer only about the nutritional value of food but how it's produced and collected," Solis said in an interview at the Newseum, where the agreement was announced. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack could not attend the event, but, in a message delivered by Solis, he called the agreement a "meaningful step, not only for tomato harvesters, but as an expression of the value of farm workers in our agricultural system as a whole."
Compass is not the first to sign an agreement with the CIW: McDonalds, Burger King and Yum Brands also have agreed to pay higher wages. 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.
With the promise of business from Compass and other large food corporations such as McDonalds, East Coast decided to resign from the growers exchange. "It's an unpopular decision with my competition," said Batista Madonia Jr., East Coast's vice president and sales manager. "But it doesn't cost our business anything. And it was the right thing to do."
Compass first became involved with the coalition in April, when its subsidiary Bon Appetit Management Co. issued a challenge to Florida growers: If no tomato grower would pass on the extra penny to the workers and improve working conditions, Bon Appetit would not serve tomatoes in the winter at its 400 college and corporate cafeterias.
Bon Appetit was not big enough to sway any of the large growers; last month, it cut a deal with independent tomato grower Alderman Farms. But its efforts did attract the attention of its corporate parent, which operates 10,000 cafeterias in public schools, hospitals and government buildings, including the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
"We hope this will set the standard for other food service companies," said Chris Ashcroft, executive vice president of human resources at Compass. "We're using our leverage for change."