Victory for Florida tomato workers

Workers in Florida’s tomato fields won a pay raise after a hard-fought struggle that focused on fast food giant Taco Bell.

Taco Bell announced March 8 that it will fund a penny per pound “pass through” with its suppliers of Florida tomatoes and will undertake joint efforts with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to improve working conditions in Florida’s tomato fields. Ending its three-year boycott of Taco Bell, CIW said that the agreement “sets a new standard of social responsibility for the fast-food industry.”

“We recognize that Florida tomato workers do not enjoy the same rights and conditions as employees in other industries,” said Emil Brolick, Taco Bell president. “Any solution must be industry-wide, and we are willing to play a leadership role within our industry to be part of the solution.”

Brolick pledged to buy tomatoes only from Florida growers who pass the penny a pound payment entirely to the farm workers.

Farm workers don’t get paid by the hour, but by the pound. CIW leader Lucas Benitez, who was himself a farm worker, told the World typically a worker must pick two tons of tomatoes to earn $50, so the penny a pound will be an important pay raise. But what is more important, Benitez said, is the precedent the agreement sets and the promise by the company to help encourage other fast food giants to follow suit.

The CIW, based in Immokalee, Fla., describes itself as a member-led organization of agricultural workers. Its past accomplishments include the exposure of five Florida agricultural slave labor operations and the subsequent liberation of over 1,000 workers. Jonathan Blum, senior vice president of Yum! Brands, Taco Bell’s parent corporation, said the company has added language to its Supplier Code of Conduct to ensure that indentured servitude by suppliers is strictly forbidden. He pledged to aid in efforts to pass new state laws to protect farm workers.