Coalition presses growers, chains for better wages (Miami Herald)

By Elaine Walker

Figuring out how much tomato workers earn in Immokalee or elsewhere around Florida depends on how you do the math.

The issue of migrant wages is at the heart of an attack by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers against tomato growers and fast-food chains.

Most farms guarantee workers at least a minimum wage of $6.79, but pay them based on the number of buckets picked. For every 32-pound bucket, the worker gets a token typically worth 45 to 50 cents.

At the farm, workers run down the rows of tomatoes, loading their buckets, then go back to the truck where they toss the bucket up to someone who empties it and drops the token inside the bucket.

The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange claims workers earn an average of $12.46 per hour. But the Coalition of Immokalee Workers says the average worker is not getting more than $50 a day and about $10,000 a year.

They both could be right.

At the heart of the difficulty in calculating wages of migrant workers is that they work irregular hours and have lots of downtime. They can't start picking tomatoes until the dew burns off, about 10 a.m. They often don't work more than six hours a day and four days a week.

Yet the migrant workers often are on standby for many hours waiting to find out when the tomatoes are ready to be picked. They don't get paid for most of that time. At most, they get paid minimum wage for a few hours of maintenance work on the farm.

''These workers are on the farms from sunup to sundown and they're not getting paid for the hours they're on the job,'' said Julia Perkins, a coalition spokeswoman.

The coalition argues that if fast-food chains pay an extra penny per pound for their tomatoes, it would double the workers' wages.

Taco Bell agreed to pay the extra penny and did it for one year. McDonald's agreed, but has not yet implemented the plan. The deals have collapsed because the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has threatened fines against its members for participating.

Burger King remains the holdout, suffering from a barrage of protests and negative attacks because it has adamantly refused to sign an agreement just to silence the critics, an action that many of its competitors have taken.

''If the motivation is to sign an agreement to silence the negative publicity, I don't see any long-term hope that this is going to be a sustainable agreement,'' said Fritz Roka, an agricultural economist with the University of Florida in Immokalee who has studied the wages of tomato workers. It might even hasten the decline of the industry and even further limit the options for farmworkers.''

Roka believes the only way the extra penny per pound would work is if fast-food companies can charge higher prices or attract more customers by using the fact that they are supporting migrant workers as a marketing tool.

''The retail companies have to be able to secure some kind of advantage for it in the marketplace,'' Roka said. Otherwise, it's not going to be economically sustainable under a competitive business framework. South Florida is not a unique growing area. There are other areas that can grow tomatoes just as well.''

Some hope the solution may come from Congress. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have expressed support for the workers' plight and said they hope to hold hearings on the issue later this year.