Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard
End of day at the tomato fields in Immokalee, Fl., as one tomato picker gives another a haircut. (Nov. 2007 AP photo)

What would a penny-a-pound more do for tomato pickers?

ASK THIS | March 21, 2011

Florida farmworkers, long subject to harsh conditions, have organized and even gone on tour to gain better treatment. Part of what they want is attention from reporters and editors. Jimmy Tobias, a reporter and activist, points to ideas for stories.

By Jimmy Tobias

The media are not asking questions about farmworkers. Who are the people that harvest our food? Where do they live? How are they treated by their employers, their landlords and their neighbors? Under what conditions do they labor in the fields?
Q. Corporate food retailers have complex supply chains that are rarely scrutinized by the media. What kind of abuses are taking place in the supply chains of major food retail corporations? Where there are abuses taking place, who is responsible for them? What can corporate food retailers do to remedy exploitative and sometimes violent working conditions in their supply chains?
Q. The media are not asking questions about forced labor. Where does it exist within our system of food production? Who are the people that are most likely to fall prey to modern-day slavers? What kind of oversight is needed to ensure that major corporations are not benefitting from what is tantamount to modern-day slavery? What must be done to eradicate it?

Florida farmworkers have long faced harsh conditions in the fields, including sub-poverty wages, verbal and physical abuse as well as incidents of sexual harassment and forced labor. Since 1997 the Department of Justice has prosecuted nine cases of modern-day slavery in Florida, involving over 1,500 farmworkers.

Florida is the second largest producer of fruits and vegetables in United States, but the men and women who make possible its huge annual harvests are pretty much invisible in the public consciousness. They are abused and their stories seldom told.
Today, however, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) — an organization of Florida tomato pickers — is rallying farmworkers, students, religious leaders and conscientious consumers nationwide behind a campaign to empower farmworkers and change the face of the state’s agriculture.

The National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS) puts farmworker earnings at $10,000 to $12,500 a year, taking into account the periods of un- and under-employment that characterize farm labor. The figure is somewhat inflated for the ordinary worker in that it includes supervisory (i.e., crew leader) earnings.
Under the auspices of its Campaign for Fair Food, the CIW has succeeded in convincing major corporate food retailers, including McDonald’s, Yum Brands, Burger King, Sodexo, Aramark and Whole Foods, to sign on to its Fair Food agreement. This legally-binding agreement compels food corporations to leverage their purchasing power to increase wage rates for Florida tomato pickers and ensure decent conditions in the fields. As a result of its efforts, Florida tomato pickers are on track to receive a penny more per-pound of tomatoes they pick. If this extra penny per pound were paid by all buyers of Florida tomatoes, it would nearly double tomato pickers’ wages.

The improvements made by this effort are still fragile. The CIW has reached agreements with some of the largest food retailers in the world but the supermarket industry as a whole has been unresponsive. All the major U.S. supermarkets, with the sole exception of Whole Foods, refuse to pay a penny-more per pound for the tomatoes they purchase. As a result, the CIW has increased its efforts to get them to take part.
During the first week of March, nearly one hundred farmworkers, all members of the CIW, toured the east coast to convince three major U.S. supermarket conglomerates — Ahold, Inc., Trader Joe’s and Publix — to support new standards in agriculture and sign the Fair Food agreement. In Boston, the tour staged a 1,000-person protest in front of Stop & Shop, a major grocery chain owned by Ahold. It held a smaller, but lively rally outside of a Trader Joe’s in New York City. It visited Landover, Maryland, the headquarters of Giant Supermarkets, another Ahold holding. It sent a delegation to Publix regional headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. Finally, 1,500 farmworkers and their allies marched, picketed, protested and performed popular theater in front of a Publix supermarket in downtown Tampa.
The farmworkers named the journey the Do the Right Thing Tour, after a famous quote by Publix founder George Jenkins. Jenkins is remembered for his ethical business practices and was often heard saying: “Never let making a profit get in the way of doing the right thing.” The CIW used these words to encourage Publix and the broader supermarket industry to take action to remedy the problem in their supply chains.

Some improvements have been made but Florida farmworkers still suffer from pervasive abuse under a veil of silence. Reporters and editors are responsible for lifting that veil. The mass media in the United States should document the human rights violations in Florida’s fields. They should probe the supply chains that provide major U.S. corporations with large quantities of cheap food. Most importantly, they should profile the men and women who work day in and day out to pick, haul, process and package the fruits and vegetables that end up on dinner plates all across the country.


The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.