Eat a slice of fresh tomato from the supermarket or at a restaurant
this winter, and chances are it will have come from a field in
south-central Florida, site of 90 percent of U.S. winter tomato

And this year, there’s a fighting chance that the worker who picked
it might have made something close to a living wage. That’s because
huge Florida farm called East Coast Growers and Packers—one of the
state’s four largest tomato tomato growers—has agreed to deliver a penny-per-pound raise to farm workers,
representing a pay boost of about 64 percent. With East Coast committed
to making sure the raise end’s up in farm workers’ pockets, the state’s
other large growers may soon follow suit.

The movement to improve conditions for Florida’s pickers has been a
long and difficult one. The scrappy worker-led Coalition of Immokalee
Workers (CIW) has been pushing for decades to improve conditions and
pay in tomato country. I visited the the area myself last spring—and
was stunned to see that despite all the progress and publicity, living
conditions remain dismal and pay absurdly low. Given that level of
normal, everyday exploitation, it’s not surprising that in extreme
situations, cases of modern-day slavery regularly crop up in the area.

Years ago, the CIW realized that merely demanding raises from the
area’s large-scale tomato growers wasn’t likely to improve conditions
much. The growers themselves operate in a highly competitive market,
dominated by large-scale food industry buyers like Wal-Mart and
McDonald’s. Those companies used their market power to keep tomato
prices low—if Florida’s growers don’t like the prices they were
offering, they could threaten to buy their tomatoes from Mexico.