Denver Protest Demands Fair Wages for Florida Farmworkers

As much as 90 percent of the tomatoes sold in the winter are grown in Florida. A coalition of progressive organizations wants corporate giants like Burger King to throw their weight around and force suppliers to raise wages and improve conditions for tomato harvesters.The tomato growing season in Colorado is long over. This time of year when you pick one of the waxy orbs off the top of the produce pile at the grocery store or bite into a burger topped with a slice of the acidic red fruit you are probably consuming Florida-grown tomatoes.

The nationwide reach of Florida tomatoes, which dominate supplies during the winter months, is the reason activists are staging protests across the country this fall to demand improved wages and conditions for Florida farmworkers who harvest the tomatoes we all eat.

About 25 people gathered Monday outside a Burger King restaurant in Denver in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization of Florida farmworkers that has called on the fast-food giant to address allegations of substandard wages and working conditions in its tomato supply chain.

“It’s some of the most difficult and dangerous work in the U.S.,” said Robert McGoey, a member of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, which is a member organization of the Alliance for Fair Food,a coalition formed to support the CIW. “Farmworkers are out in the hot fields all day hauling heavy containers in fields that are covered with pesticides. It’s dirty, dangerous work that just isn’t respected.”

The Denver protest was part of a nationwide campaign by the CIW and the Alliance for Fair Food to call attention to the plight of Florida farmworkers and to pressure Burger King to use its purchasing power to ensure the rights of low-wage laborers at the bottom of its supply chain.

“It’s the purchasers that have a lot of power in the marketplace,” said McGoey. “They are the ones who can dictate prices.”

Both Burger King Corp. and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange have vigorously defended themselves against the allegations of worker abuse and exploitation in the tomato supply chain.

On the main page of its website, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange states that the average hourly wage for a Florida tomato harvester is more than $12, well above the federal minimum wage. 

Burger King spokesperson Keva Silversmith said the company enforces a “robust member code of conduct,” which requires all suppliers to be in full compliance with federal, state and local laws.

“The dispute about wages needs to take place between the employer and the employee, and Burger King is not a party to that dispute,” Silversmith said. “There’s a belief that Burger King is a direct employer of the tomato harvesters, which we are not.”

The CIW wants Burger King to agree to pay one penny more per pound of tomatoes as a surcharge to help farmworkers. The coalition came to a similar agreement with McDonald’s, but citing legal concerns, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange recently backed out of the “penny-per-pound” agreement, raising questions over the future of the hard-fought CIW accords with McDonald’s and Yum Brands Inc. 

The decision by the Florida tomato producers to eliminate the penny-per-pound extra pay to workers makes corporate cooperation on issues of farmworker rights all the more important, McGoey said. 

“It points to the need for more companies, such as Burger King to say that they are going to support the human rights of the workers in their supply chain,” he said. “Purchasers need to stand up for workers’ rights.”

In February, after negotiations with CIW representatives, Burger King decided not to enter into a penny-per-pound agreement with tomato harvesters, instead offering to recruit Immokalee farm workers for full-time jobs in Burger King restaurants. The Alliance for Fair Food called the offer “insulting.” Burger King is not reconsidering, however.

“The bottom line is that if the Florida Tomato Growers are not going to participate in the penny-per-pound program, we have no way of identifying who the harvesters are, much less figure out how to get them additional money,” said Silversmith. The CIW has never provided the corporation with specific locations where worker abuse occurs, Silversmith added. “Here at Burger King we are ready to jump in our cars today to investigate allegations of slavery or severe worker misconduct in Immokalee.”

But McGoey insists that the abuse of farmworkers is widespread in Florida.  “We can’t pinpoint a specific supplier to Burger King because their supply chain isn’t transparent.” 

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