MIAMI (AP) — Two Florida farms have decided to participate in a deal to boost the wages of the state’s tomato pickers, joining an agreement with a farmworker advocacy group and upscale Whole Foods Market, the grocery chain announced Thursday.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Whole Foods said the farms will pass on to pickers a net penny more per pound of tomatoes sold to the Austin, Texas, based company. Whole Foods will foot the bill.
Florida provides most of the nation’s domestic winter tomato crop.
Florida workers earn about 47 cents per 32-pound bucket. That can mean an average of about $12 an hour for the hardest workers, usually immigrants who receive no health insurance nor overtime.
If all Florida tomatoes purchasers joined the penny deal, the farmworkers could nearly double their earnings. The idea is that the national restaurant and grocery chains that have the deep pockets pay the extra money, including administrative costs, and the farmers pass it on to the workers when they receive their checks. The deals also permit the coalition to serve as a mediator when labor complaints arise.
The coalition, which claims membership of about 4,000 mostly migrant workers, gained national attention when it reached similar deals in recent years with fast-food chains including McDonald’s and Burger King corporations.
But such agreements have existed on paper only since the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which represents most of the state’s tomato growers, threatened two years ago to levy a $100,000 fine on any member who participated.
Whole Foods signed the deal with the coalition in 2008 but was unable to find farms willing to pass along the money. Whole Foods said Lady Moon Farms and Alderman Farms, both medium-sized family farms that sell organic produce, have agreed to participate this season.
Karen Christensen, global produce coordinator for Whole Foods Market, said the initial number of tomatoes might be small compared to the total number the company purchases, but that the deal marks an important first step.
“Lady Moon and Alderman Farms are examples of Florida growers that we are proud to support,” Christensen said in a statement.
Coalition member Lucas Benitez also praised the farms, which are not part of the exchange.
“For nearly two seasons, the Campaign’s promise of fair wages for Florida’s farmworkers has been held hostage by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange,” he said, referring to the pressure the group has exerted on members not to work with the coalition.
“Today, however, the higher wages and fairer conditions we have fought for will begin to reach the workers who so clearly deserve them.”
Messages left by The Associated Press for the farms, the coalition and Whole Foods regarding the details of the agreement were not immediately returned Thursday.
The Tomato Growers Exchange also did not return messages.
U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and Dick Durbin, D-Il, both of whom have long supported the coalition’s efforts, lauded Thursday’s deal.
“All Florida tomato growers should follow the example set today and join with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in bringing fairer wages and more humane working conditions to all of Florida’s tomato harvesters,” Durbin said in a statement.