Jul 3, 2008

World - The Price of a Tomato

A CAMPAIGN to improve the low wages and awful labour conditions of tomato pickers in Florida has notched up a substantial victory over farm owners and their biggest clients, the fast-food chains. After one embarrassment on top of another, Burger King backed down last month and reached a ground-breaking agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, representing mostly seasonal farmworkers from Mexico, Central America and Haiti. The Miami-based company agreed to pay them one cent more for every pound (450g) of tomatoes they pick, and to improve their working conditions.
Florida is the leading winter supplier of tomatoes to America, providing more than 80% of shipments, according to the Florida Tomato Committee. The new agreement came after years of pressure on the growers and fast-food chains, which intensified over the past six months and included a congressional hearing at which growers were accused of enslaving and mistreating their workers.

Some companies, led by Taco Bell, had agreed as early as 2005 to pay the extra cent the farmworkers were demanding. McDonald’s followed suit last year. But the powerful Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which represents 90% of the state’s producers held out. It threatened to fine anyone who paid the extra cent a whopping $100,000.
The extra cent a pound is the first pay increase workers have received in 30 years. Even with it, a picker would have to fill 15 32-pound buckets an hour to earn Florida’s minimum wage of $6.79—a tall order in the broiling sun. A campaign in favour of the workers has in recent months secured the backing of members of Congress and many church groups. In April a petition with 85,000 signatures was delivered to Burger King. The firm was also embarrassed by press revelations that two of its officials had anonymously posted demeaning comments online about the workers, calling them “bloodsuckers” and “the lowest form of human life”.
The coalition is still on the warpath. It wants other big buyers to pay the extra cent. It is targeting Wal-Mart, as well as the Subway sandwich store chain, Chipotle restaurants, and Whole Foods supermarkets. But most of all it wants people to think about what goes into the sauce they slather on their burgers

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