Farmworkers use Florida march to pressure other businesses

Farmworkers were leading a five-day, 45-mile (72-kilometer) trek this week from one of Florida’s poorest communities to a town lined with beachfront mansions that is one of the wealthiest in the aim of putting pressure on retailers to leverage their purchasing power to improve workers’ pay and working conditions.

Farmworkers said they were marching to highlight the Fair Food program, which has committed companies like McDonald’s, Walmart, Taco Bell and Whole Foods to use their influence with producers to ensure better working conditions and better wages to agricultural workers. They hoped to use the march to pressure other companies, such as Publix, Wendy’s and Kroger, to join the program launched in 2011.

The march began Tuesday from the farming community of Pahokee, one of Florida’s poorest, where the median household income is around $30,000. The starting point for the march was a camp where farm workers were forced to work for barely a salary by a contractor who was found guilty and sentenced last year to almost 10 years in prison. The contractor confiscated the Mexican farmworkers’ passports, demanded exorbitant fees and threatened them with deportation or arbitrary arrest, according to the US Department of Justice.

Walkers were due to arrive Saturday in the city of Palm Beach, which has a median household income of nearly $169,000 and is lined with mansions of the rich and famous, including billionaire Nelson Peltz, who serves as Wendy’s president, and the former President Donald. Asset.

According to the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which organized the march, the program helped ensure that farmworkers were paid for the hours they worked; guaranteed them safety measures in the workplace such as shade, water and access to toilets; and reduced threats of sexual assault, harassment and forced labor under the guard of armed guards in fields where tomatoes and other crops are harvested. Immokalee is a farming town in Southwest Florida located in the heart of the state’s tomato growing area.

Producers have benefited as it reduces turnover and improves productivity, according to the coalition.

Wendy’s said in a statement that it did not participate in the Fair Food program because it sources its tomatoes from indoor hydroponic farms, while the program works primarily for farm workers in outdoor fields, so ” there is no link between the program and our supply chain.” The fast-food chain said it required third-party reviews to ensure no abuse was involved in harvesting the tomatoes it obtained from suppliers.

“The idea that joining the Fair Food program and buying commodity field-grown tomatoes is the only way Wendy’s can demonstrate responsibility in our supply chain is not true,” Wendy’s said.

In a statement on Friday, the coalition described Wendy’s response as a “dodge.”

Publix and Kroger officials did not respond to email inquiries.

The idea of ​​pressuring retailers to use their influence with growers to improve wages and conditions for Florida tomato pickers took off in the early 2000s when the Immokalee Labor Coalition led a four-year national boycott of Taco Bell. The boycott ended in 2005 when the company agreed to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes purchased from Florida growers to boost farm worker wages.

The Fair Food Program followed several years later in an agreement with Florida tomato growers, and it now includes more than a dozen participating companies. Leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Fair Food Program were honored with a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, and a Presidential Award presented by the Secretary of State for era, John Kerry.

“So now workers have the right to complain without fear of reprisal. Workers also have water and shade under these agreements,” Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a coalition official, said at the start of the march in Pahokee. “The program has proven to be the solution, the antidote to the problem of modern slavery, the problem of sexual assault and the problems that have always plagued the agricultural industry.”


Daniel Kozin of Pahokee, Florida contributed to this report.


Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP


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