Farmworkers use Florida march to lobby other businesses

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Farmworkers were leading a five-day, 45-mile (72-kilometer) walk this week from one of Florida’s poorest communities to a mansion-lined waterfront city that is one of its wealthiest in an effort to pressure farmers. retailers to leverage their purchasing power to improve workers’ wages and working conditions.

The farmworkers said they were marching to highlight the Fair Food Program, which has enlisted companies like McDonald’s, Walmart, Taco Bell and Whole Foods to use their influence with growers to ensure better working conditions and wages for farmworkers. They hoped to use the march to pressure other businesses, including Publix, Wendy’s and Kroger, to join the program that began in 2011.

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

The protesters were scheduled to arrive Saturday in the city of Palm Beach, which has a median household income of nearly $169,000 and is lined with the mansions of the rich and famous, including billionaire Nelson Peltz, who is the chairman of Wendy’s, and Former President Donald Triunfo.

According to the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which organized the march, the program has ensured that farmworkers are paid for the hours they work; it guaranteed them security measures at work such as shade, water and access to bathrooms; and has reduced threats of sexual assault, harassment, and forced labor under armed guards in fields where tomatoes and other crops are grown. Immokalee is a southwest Florida farming town in the heart of the state’s tomato-growing area.

Growers 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 Foods Program because it sources its supply of tomatoes from indoor hydroponic greenhouse farms, while the program operates for farmworkers predominantly in outdoor fields, so “there is no nexus between the program and our supply chain.” The fast-food chain said it requires third-party reviews to make sure there aren’t any abuses in the tomatoes it gets from suppliers.

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

Publix and Kroger officials did not respond to emailed inquiries.

The idea of ​​putting pressure on retailers to use their influence with growers to improve wages and conditions for Florida tomato pickers arose in the early 2000s when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers led a four-year nationwide boycott. years to 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 raise wages for farmworkers.

The Fair Food Program followed several years later in an agreement with Florida tomato growers, and now includes more than a dozen participating corporations.

“So now workers have the right to complain without fear of retaliation. The workers also have water and shade as part of these agreements,” Gerardo Reyes Chávez, a coalition official, said at the start of the march in Pahokee. “The Perfect 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.”


Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP

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