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Farmworkers, Allies Embark on March for 'Rights, Respect and Fair Food'

CIW takes on corporate giant for lack of support for fair labor standards

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Hundreds of Florida farmworkers and their allies on Sunday are embarking on a two-week, 200-mile "March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food" calling on one of the state's corporate giants to "do the right thing" and join the campaign that assures humane working standards for tomato harvesters.

Organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the march's goal is to highlight successes of their Fair Food Program (FFP) as well as call out Publix, one of the largest purchasers of Florida tomatoes, for failing to join the program, and whose workers, CIW explains, "are denied access to the FFP's higher standards, complaint mechanism, and 'penny-per-pound' bonus."

The march begins in Fort Meyers and ends at Publix's headquarters in Lakeland, Florida.

"After decades of what Edward R. Murrow called the 'Harvest of Shame,' the Fair Food Program is something the Florida tomato industry, something all of us can all be proud of -- labor rights advances that are setting the bar for social responsibility in the US produce industry today," said Gerardo Reyes of the CIW.

Educator and community organizer Kandace Vallejo adds in Waging Nonviolence "Why I’m walking 200 miles with the Immokalee Workers":

To date, [Campaign for Fair Food] has signed Fair Food Agreements with 11 major corporations — McDonalds and Whole Foods among them — but Publix has been reticent to join the historic program. The agreements include a penny-per-pound premium sent down the supply chain to workers, stipulations on working conditions, and the establishment of a third-party monitoring system to ensure these changes last. Indeed, the Fair Food Program could prove to be a model for how to re-shape the rest of American agriculture.

The changes won thus far have been monumental. Workers now receive a “Fair Food Premium” in their pay. Sexual harassment is no longer tolerated, and growers provide bathrooms, water and shade structures under which workers can rest. Tomato pickers are educated on-site about their new rights under the program, and there is a hotline that workers can call to report violations. These changes are a direct result of people organizing in solidarity with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and it is all held in place by one crucial force — consumer power.

Agreements are backed by market consequences, but as long as a low-bar market for tomatoes still exists, growers and retailers who don’t want to participate don’t have to. Coalition member Leonel Perez recently told me, “We are far from system-wide transformation. We need more corporate buyers to come on board, and we need consumer support to make that possible.”

"But while the changes we are seeing in farmworkers' lives today are indeed unprecedented, there is still much to be done," stated Reyes. "With each new corporation that joins, the wage increases and labor reforms grow and deepen, which is why Publix's decision to turn its back on the FFP is so unconscionable. Its support, which would cost Publix little or nothing, could significantly change the lives of some of the state's hardest workers, yet the $28 billion company won't even show farmworkers the respect of granting us a meeting to discuss the Fair Food Program face-to-face."

From CIW:

We will march to celebrate the changes underway today in Florida's tomato industry. We will march so that Publix does, finally, support the Fair Food Program. We will march so that those growers who refuse to meet the new standards no longer get solace, and sales, from retailers like Publix who remain willing to purchase tomatoes produced the old way, "no questions asked." And we will march so that, one day, farmworkers across this country might enjoy the unprecedented new rights and working relationships being born today in the fields of Florida.

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