Immokalee farmworkers celebrated a landmark agreement late last month, after Burger King agreed to pay them a penny more for every pound of tomatoes they pick, to improve their working conditions and to set up a new code of conduct for growers.

The May 23 agreement followed a year of escalating pressure on Burger King by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and its allies, marked by a heated boycott and a petition campaign.

“This victory is very important because it brings us one step closer in this struggle for workers’ rights,” said Melody Gonzalez, 24, national co-chair of the Student/Farmworker Alliance and a CIW leader.

“The fight is still not over but this will allow us to ensure that these changes are applied on an industry-wide level so all workers can benefit from these gains,” she told the World.

Burger King went so far as to hire an unlicensed private investigation firm known for its undercover infiltration of labor groups to spy on CIW meetings.

A corporate vice president was discovered using his daughter’s screen name to post derogatory comments about CIW on various websites. He and another executive were eventually fired for participating “in unauthorized activity on public web sites which did not reflect the company’s views.”

Burger King acknowledges it hired the private investigators but has said it severed ties with the firm. Chief Executive John W. Chidsey apologized for previous negative remarks toward CIW. “Today we turn a new page in our relationship and begin a new chapter of real progress for Florida farmworkers,” he said in a statement.

The Miami-based fast food chain, home of the “Whopper,” said it would pay tomato prices adequate to give workers a wage increase of 1.5 cents a pound. A penny will go to the farmworker and the extra half-cent is to cover the growers’ additional payroll taxes and administrative costs. The 71 percent wage increase is the first in decades.

Tomato farmworkers typically earn $10,000 to $12,000 a year. Now they could earn $16,000-$17,000. Burger King expects the deal to cost about $300,000 a year. Its 2007 profits totaled $2.2 billion.

Burger King has also promised to call for an industry-wide net penny-per-pound surcharge to increase wages for all Florida tomato harvesters. The company and the coalition have agreed on a stronger Vendor Code of Conduct requiring immediate termination of any grower from Burger King’s supply chain for certain unlawful activities. Workers will help monitor compliance.

Besides Subway, Chipotle and Wal-Mart, “We also plan to put pressure on Whole Foods who claim to be socially responsible with organic foods and fair trade,” Gonzalez said. “It only makes sense for them to come to the table as well.

“As students we play a critical role because these companies try and convince us to eat and buy from them but we cannot tolerate these abuses,” she added. “We have a responsibility to stand up for workers.”

Florida produces almost half the tomatoes eaten in the U.S., and Immokalee is the epicenter. From October to May, more than 30,000 people work in the fields.

Most southern Florida tomato workers are from Central America and are undocumented. They work under the blazing sun from sunrise to sunset, up to seven days a week. In a typical day each worker picks, carries and unloads up to two tons of tomatoes. Most are forced to live in crowded, run-down trailers. They have few benefits and no union rights.

Norberto Jimenez, an Immokalee tomato worker originally from Mexico, says the Burger King deal is “about time.”

“We were disappointed with all the tactics Burger King used but we are happy that our demands will carry over,” said Jimenez. “As migrant farm workers with or without papers who work in poor conditions, it’s important for us to build unity with the broader community in this struggle for our rights,” he told the World.

“What it comes down to is human rights, dignity and respect,” he said.

The pact puts pressure on the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, representing 90 percent of the state’s tomato farmers. The group is refusing to serve as a conduit for the penny-a-pound settlement, claiming the plan raises antitrust issues and that it is “un-American” for third parties to influence wages.

Meanwhile, Congressional investigators are headed for Florida to study pickers’ pay and working conditions. The growers will have to explain why they are halting a no-cost deal that big corporate buyers and the laborers who supply them are prepared to enforce.

The CIW — made up of migrant workers, student, labor, community and religious activists and lawmakers — has led nationwide marches, demonstrations and petition drives and has argued the workers’ case before legislative committees.

CIW won its first victory in 2005, after a four-year boycott against Taco Bell, owned by Yum! Brands. Since then KFC, A&W, Long John Silver’s and Pizza Hut have joined the penny-per-pound program. Last year CIW won a similar agreement with McDonald’s.