"As someone who represents Vermont, the first state in the United States to outlaw slavery, it is almost incomprehensible to me that we are standing here today -- at the beginning of the 21st century -- holding a press conference to bring attention to the fact that workers in the tomato fields of Florida are working in desperate conditions, conditions that in some cases are so extreme that even the Bush administration has brought slavery charges," Senator Bernie Sanders told a press conference on the Capitol grounds. Recent reports suggest that pay for tomato farm workers' in Immokalee, Florida has not increased in the past two decades and that living conditions of local workers are among the worst in the agriculture industry. A federal grand jury recently indicted six people for enslaving farm workers there. As Sanders said: "This is a disgrace and an outrage that cannot be allowed to continue."
Sanders was joined by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, and RFK Center Director Monika Kalra Varma in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' nationwide petition drive on behalf of Florida farm workers.
"Tomato pickers in Florida are working twelve hours days in terrible conditions for substandard wages and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange refuse to admit there is any problem," said Durbin. "Senator Sanders and I disagree. And in our meeting with the Growers Exchange Tuesday night, we made it very clear that we going to stand up for the tomato pickers. The Growers Exchange refused to even consider any change in compensation or living conditions."
"When we talk about the race to the bottom in America, it is clear the tomato pickers in Immokalee are the bottom," said Sanders. "They are workers who are ruthlessly exploited and have no rights. This is a situation that should not continue in America and should be changed."
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has launched the petition drive to insist that the food industry improve wages and working conditions for tomato pickers. Senator Sanders visited Florida in January to investigate conditions on tomato farms. While he was there, a federal grand jury indicted six people for enslaving farm workers. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee tentatively scheduled a hearing in mid-April on working conditions on the farms.
Senators Durbin and Sanders also sent letters today, along with Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), to seven of the largest grocery and food service companies urging them to participate in a proposed initiative to increase the per bushel piece rate that tomato workers in Immokalee, Florida are paid. Today's letter was sent to Winn Dixie, Kroger, Publix, Safeway, SUPERVALU, SYSCO, US Food Service, and Wal-Mart.
In today's letter, the Senators noted "Both McDonald's Corporation and Yum! Brands have taken important steps to provide the region's farm workers an additional penny per pound of tomatoes harvested. Such an increase would have little impact on the bottom line of tomato purchasers but would have a meaningful impact on the lives of these workers."
The piece rate paid to workers has not changed in the past 25 years and remains approximately 40 cents per 32 pound bucket of tomatoes picked. Because tomatoes can't be picked year round and can't be picked in certain weather conditions, a high earning picker may earn at most about $15,000 per year. The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange recently announced that on average, workers earn about $12 per hour, a highly dubious assertion that assumes full employment year round.
McDonald's Corp. and Yum Brands, the owner of Taco Bell, have worked with the coalition to significantly improve workers' wages. The program was recently halted by the Florida Tomato Growers who threatened to sue their member growers $100,000 if they participate in the penny per pound program. In addition, Burger King refuses to participate in the program.
On March 12, Durbin and Sanders met with Reggie Brown, Executive Vice President of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, in Senator Durbin's Capitol office. In the meeting, they offered to work with the Growers Exchange to find a legal, practical way to get an extra penny per pound to the workers. The Growers would not acknowledge the problem at hand and refused to come up with a mutually agreeable solution.
To watch the press conference, click here.
To hear the press conference, click here.