Editorial: Farmworkers denied 1 cent (St. Petersburg Times)
April 11, 2008
Is it really going to take an act of Congress to get Florida's tomato pickers a raise? The men and women who work the fields in Immokalee earn 45 cents on average for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes harvested. It is a meager wage that has not been raised in more than 20 years. Yet when a couple of fast food giants generously agreed to pay workers an added penny per pound, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange sabotaged the deal and has refused to negotiate even after congressional leaders offered to be intermediaries.
The extra penny was to be paid directly by McDonald's Corp. and Yum Brands Inc., which operates restaurant chains like Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. It wouldn't have cost the growers a nickel. Even so, the Growers Exchange has reportedly threatened its members with a fine of $100,000 if they participate. This is hard to understand.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is scheduling a hearing on the matter in mid April; and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said at a recent news conference that he and fellow congressional members are "going to get to the root of the problem and, if necessary, address it legislatively." Sanders visited Florida's Immokalee tomato fields in January and said he witnessed "horrendous conditions" for the workers.
The Growers Exchange claims that its tomato pickers earn more than $12 an hour, far more than the state's minimum wage, and don't merit a raise. Perhaps the best response to these dubious figures comes from Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who "did the math" and figured out that the workers would have to hand pick 2,500 tomatoes every hour at the current piece rate to earn that wage. Even the growers admit that the figure only applies to the time the workers spend picking.
Beyond pressuring the Growers Exchange, members of Congress are also trying to enlist grocers and food service companies to agree to pay the added penny per pound. These stores purchase a much larger share of the Immokalee tomato crop than the big fast food chains. A letter signed by Sens. Kennedy, Durbin, Sanders and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, was recently sent to Wal-Mart, Publix and Winn-Dixie, among others, asking for a commitment to do what McDonald's and Yum Brands have done.
They should join the effort. It is a little bit of extra money that would make workers' lives a little bit better.
The truth is that Florida's migrant farm laborers are among the worst paid workers in the state. They haven't had a piece rate increase in a generation, and the Growers Exchange wants to keep it that way. Even when someone else is willing to foot the bill.