America's Tomorrow: Tomato Workers in Florida Remake an Industry< Back to All Newsletters
May 22, 2014
Tomato Workers in Florida Remake an Industry
Jon Esformes, one of the largest tomato producers in the nation, is a vocal champion for a worker-led campaign to remake his industry and create good jobs for some of the most vulnerable people in America. Why? Because raising the floor for farmworkers will help grow his business and reinvigorate a once-dominant industry struggling in the face of global competition.
By forging alliances with businesses like his, all along the tomato supply chain, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has achieved groundbreaking victories to improve wages and working conditions in Florida fields. The group has signed agreements with nearly all the growers in Florida, the nation's leading fresh tomato producer, and with a dozen of the largest tomato buyers in the world, including McDonald's, Burger King, Whole Foods and, most recently, Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart sells about 20 percent of the nation's fresh tomatoes, and said it will work with the coalition to extend the high-road standards to other states and other crops in its supply chain.
How fair food benefits all
The agreements are wins for all the players. For about 30,000 Florida farmworkers, most of them from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti, there are pay hikes of $60 to $80 a week during harvest season and dramatic improvements in workplace safety and dignity.
For retailers there's a public relations boost in pledging to buy only from growers who meet "fair food" standards — a promise that doesn't cost the retailers much money but that consumers value and promote on social media.
And for growers, there's lower turnover and higher productivity in the fields and an image makeover in the public eye, said Greg Asbed, the coalition's co-founder. That's no small thing for a $650 million industry once dubbed by a U.S. attorney as "ground zero for modern slavery," because of repeated investigations and prosecutions for involuntary servitude and wage theft.
"The industry is better off because it's not fighting this image as one of the most regressive in the nation," Asbed said. "It's coming to be seen as one of the most progressive on human rights, and there's real value to that."
All these changes are helping to stabilize and renew an industry that had been in freefall. Florida tomato production has declined by half since the early 1990s in the face of competition, mainly from Mexico.
Now, for the first time in years, the industry is attracting new investment. Del Monte Fresh Produce NA, Inc. paid $16 million this February to buy 2,620 acres of idle farmland to expand tomato production in the state. It was the company's second major investment in Florida tomatoes in a year.
"The natural assumption by businesses is that anytime someone is approaching them from a labor perspective, it is somehow not congruent with the direction of the business," said Esformes, a fourth-generation grower who runs Pacific Tomato Growers, which is headquartered in Florida. "What I found in the coalition was a group of people who believed in the same things we did — good working relationships and having a sustainable business. That's the basis for a partnership."
Building a market-driven movement
The remarkable turnaround in relationships, standards, and industry prospects is testament to the tenacity and strategic vision of the coalition. It has fought for 20 years for fair wages and basic rights for tomato workers. Until recently, it met fierce resistance from many growers, producers, and a powerful industry group, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.
The coalition broke the logjam by building a market-driven movement targeting brand-name buyers like Taco Bell and McDonald's to join the Fair Food Program. As household names, these enterprises are more sensitive than growers to public relations pressure and consumer sentiment. And once a company like Wal-Mart demands higher standards for the people who grow and pick its produce, growers must comply to keep that business.
The Fair Food Program establishes a code of conduct for growers. They must provide shade and protective equipment in the fields, guarantee minimum wages, and permit worker education about their rights. The agreements mandate rest breaks and prohibit verbal and sexual abuse, well-documented problems in the industry. They also set a "penny-per-pound" premium, paid by participating restaurants and retailers and passed through the growers to the farmworkers.
Those pennies boost the average $12,000 to $15,000 farmworker annual income by several thousand dollars, said Greg Asbed, the coalition's founder. "It pays for rent and some food every week and will continue to grow as more buyers join the program."
The agreements also establish systems for independent monitoring and complaint resolution — measures that Esformes welcomes.
"This holds us accountable," he said. "The other piece — and this is the most important to me — the relationship with the coalition is absolutely the first time there is a real acknowledgment of the cultural gap that exists between our workforce and the rights and protections that are afforded in the United States. Our workforce is an immigrant workforce, and the concept of being able to log a complaint to management or public authorities is alien. Now there's a process that's safe and secure, and there's education about that process."
A film about the coalition's work, Food Chains, made its debut in April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and will be released in theaters in the fall. Meanwhile, the coalition plans to take its program to Georgia, Virginia, and other tomato-growing states. The group will also begin a concerted consumer education effort to get shoppers to demand fair-food tomatoes at their local supermarkets. Ultimately, all of us have the power to strengthen domestic agriculture by improving opportunities for workers.
Five Ways to Fulfill the Economic Promise of Women of Color
Despite continued barriers to accessing higher education and the race and gender pay gap, women of color are earning more college degrees than ever before, and launching businesses at a faster pace than any other group. In 2013, women of color entrepreneurs employed 1.4 million workers, and generated more than $220 billion in revenues. The economic potential of women of color is enormous —and tapping into it is not just good for them, it is critical for national prosperity. Within just a few decades, the majority of all women will be women of color. As Angela Glover Blackwell argues in the new Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, linking advocacy for women with advocacy for racial equity is key to reversing skyrocketing inequality and building an economy that works for all. Here are five policies that can increase economic security for low-income families, strengthen communities and the economy, and support the success of all women, including women of color.
- Require basic work supports. Women of color are overrepresented in low-wage sectors like retail, food service, and home health care that often do not provide basic work supports, such as paid sick days and job flexibility. New research highlights how these job characteristics make a major difference in whether or not low-income families of color can build wealth over time. Job flexibility, for example, helps women balance holding a job and caring for children or elderly parents. And when workers have paid sick days, they don't need to choose between their health and their livelihoods — and the workforce becomes healthier and more productive.
States and localities are leading the way in providing basic work supports. Connecticut passed a statewide paid sick day initiative in 2011. In addition, cities from Portland, Oregon, to Jersey City, New Jersey, guarantee access to earn paid sick days, and there are currently over 20 active paid sick days campaigns at the state and local level. And, while the United States is far behind the vast majority of other countries when it comes to paid maternity leave, three states —California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island —now offer paid family leave, and several others have pending legislation or are considering it.
- Raise the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage is an urgent concern for women of color: 22 percent of minimum wage earners are women of color, compared to 16 percent of all workers. The federal minimum wage should be raised to at least $10.10, which would make it comparable to the level that was maintained in the mid-1960s, and should be indexed to inflation so it adjusts automatically. A $10.10 minimum wage would raise the wages of more than 5.7 million women of color. Tipped workers should also receive the full minimum wage directly by their employers, with tips in addition. Seven states already require that tipped workers receive the full minimum wage instead of a separate tipped minimum wage.
To maximize economic security for women of color and all low-wage workers, cities and states should follow the lead of places like Seattle and work to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour and index it to inflation.
- Encourage entrepreneurship. Women of color have a proven track record of entrepreneurial success. Between 2002 and 2007 (the most recent data available), African American women-owned firms grew at a faster rate than any other group of firms, Asian American women-owned firms grew at the second-fastest rate, and Latina-owned firms grew at the third-fastest rate. By effectively halting lending, the recession stopped this progress. But targeted supports, such as small business loan programs that make capital available to women of color, can allow their entrepreneurial spirit and success to flourish again. In addition, federal, state, and local governments should help women of color-owned businesses access government contracts and grow their businesses through active recruitment and targeted contracting policies, if allowed under state law.
The business community can also play an important role. Women's associations, such as Walker's Legacy and the Women's Chamber of Commerce, and initiatives like the Women of Color Foundation's Women's Entrepreneurial Initiative can provide important mentorship and support for enterprising women of color. Alternative business models, such as women of color-led cooperatives like Beyond Care, are also creating jobs and building wealth and leadership within communities.
- Create pathways to 21st century careers. Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and training offer a pathway to well-paying jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities in the fastest-growing fields. Women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than non-STEM occupations. And while women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn, in STEM occupations, women earn 92 cents for every dollar men make.
Women of color are severely underrepresented in STEM occupations. Targeted outreach to young women of color through organizations like Black Girls CODE, mentorship programs, and increasing the number of women faculty of color in STEM programs can boost the participation of women of color in science and technology. Increasing participation in STEM fields is critical because America needs a qualified workforce, as well as STEM leaders, and innovators to maintain a competitive edge in a tech-driven global economy.
- Support equal pay for equal work. It is an unacceptable reality that in the 21st century, African American women earn just 64 cents and Latinas earn only 56 cents for every dollar paid to white men. As more and more women become primary breadwinners, this pay gap hurts millions of children and families. Recent federal Executive Orders seek to combat this wage disparity by increasing wage transparency among federal contractors. Congress should join in the campaign for wage parity and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to provide additional tools to fight wage discrimination.
America cannot afford to delay action on these policies and continue to suppress the potential for women of color to lead the nation toward a more equitable and prosperous future. The upcoming White House Summit on Working Families will be an important opportunity to advance these and other policies that support the economic success of working women of color.