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July 2011 Volume 17 Number 3

Florida, North Carolina, Georgia

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The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) got its start in the southwestern Florida city of Immokalee by helping to uncover cases of farm workers being enslaved. The resulting prosecutions of the unlicensed labor contractors responsible for enslaving workers, the Navarette family, bolstered the profile of the CIW and made some of the 16 major tomato growers wary of using contractors associated with slavery.

During the 1990s, the CIW initially put pressure on growers, demanding an increase in the piece rate from about $0.40 per 32-pound bucket to $0.75 a bucket. This effort largely failed to change industry practices, and the CIW turned to the major buyers of tomatoes.

After CIW organized boycotts of Taco Bell, parent Yum Brands in 2005 agreed to pay growers an extra cent a pound for the Florida tomatoes that it bought so that growers could pass the extra penny on to pickers. McDonald's (2007) raised the extra payment to 1.5 cents a pound, and Burger King (2008), and Subway (2008) signed similar 1.5 cent a pound agreements with the CIW, as did retailer Whole Foods (2008) and food service providers such as Aramark, Bon Appetit, Compass and Sodexo.

The 16 major Florida tomato growers, organized into the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, refused to pass on the extra penny to pickers until November 2010, when the CIW and the FTGE agreed in November 2010 on a Fair Food Code of Conduct that includes a complaint resolution system for employees, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process. Six growers with 5,000 employees are participating in 2010-11, and all 16 growers with 33,000 employees are expected to participate in 2011-12.

Major supermarkets have been reluctant to sign agreements with the CIW, prompting protests outside Publix supermarkets in Florida. Supermarkets sell about half of Florida's tomatoes, and they have been reluctant to follow the fast-food industry in adopting and enforcing codes of conduct for their suppliers of fresh produce.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in a June 2011 speech to citrus growers predicted that: "The biggest fight next year in Tallahassee and Washington will be the fight over a stable work supply. It is an uphill fight to convince our fellow Floridians that in a 10 to 11 percent unemployment environment, these jobs are still going unfulfilled."

Barry Estabrook's book on Florida tomatoes, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, was prompted in part by the CIW's boycott of Burger King and a previous article on the "Price of Tomatoes." He argues that, since tomatoes originated in dry areas of northern Peru, Florida's sandy soil and humid climate are not the place to grow fresh tomatoes, since they must be sprayed numerous times with herbicides and pesticides. Estabrook is especially critical of the practice of picking mature-green tomatoes and using ethylene to turn them red. According to Estabrook, growers pushed for higher yields, which resulted in loss of nutrients and taste.

Estabrook devotes considerable attention to tomato pickers. He quotes US attorney Douglas Molloy in Fort Myers as saying that South Florida's tomato fields are "ground zero for modern-day slavery," and that slavery is tolerated or ignored in south Florida agriculture.

Florida in May 2011 approved a reduction in unemployment benefits from 26 to 23 weeks. The maximum duration of UI benefits is to move down with the unemployment rate, to 12 weeks if the rate was less than five percent.

North Carolina. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee organized demonstrations outside the British embassy and consulates in May 2011 to protest the failure of Reynolds American to meet with FLOC and discuss the conditions of workers on the farms from which it buys tobacco. British American Tobacco is a major stockholder in Reynolds.

FLOC says that 30,000 workers are employed in North Carolina tobacco fields, and that it represents 27,000 farm workers in Ohio and North Carolina. The North Carolina Growers Association says that FLOC represents about 2,000 tobacco workers.

Reynolds said its farmer-growers are required to certify they have received training from the Good Agricultural Practice program that reviews labor and housing laws as well as pesticide standards before it buys tobacco from them. However, Reynolds says that farmers rather than tobacco buyers employ workers. Reynolds in May 2011 promised to use an independent, third-party monitor to assess the working conditions at US tobacco farms that sell to Reynolds, and met with representatives of Oxfam America and FLOC to outline the monitoring process. With Altria Inc and Philip Morris International, Reynolds agreed to consider the formation of a council to monitor and improve farm worker conditions.

Georgia. Georgia approved HB 87 in May 2011, an Arizona-style immigration law that allows state and local police to check the immigration status of suspects who can not show an approved form of identification (this portion of the law was enjoined and will not take effect as scheduled July 1, 2011). State agencies, businesses with state contracts, and other private employers with 11 or more full-time employees must use E-Verify to check the legal status of new hires after July 1, 2013.

The Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association estimated that farmers could lose $300 million because of labor shortages linked to HB 87, prompting a state survey to ask farmers how many more workers they need, how long they will need them, what they pay per hour, and what they are doing to recruit employees. Some farmers reported in June 2011 that they were raising wages, offering bonuses for worker referrals, and trying to recruit additional workers via Hispanic businesses.

The June 2011 survey found that 46 percent of the 233 farmers responding reported a shortage of 11,000 workers. In response, Republican Governor Nathan Deal suggested that some of the 100,000 ex-convicts on probation could fill jobs that they say have been left vacant by migrants frightened off by Georgia's new immigration law. A separate survey of 132 farmers by the Georgia Agribusiness Council found half of farmers reporting labor shortages. Typical comments were "today I needed 20 pickers and got 10."

Many labor shortage complaints came from southeastern Georgia, where Vidalia onions, the state vegetable, are grown. Bill Brim, who farms 4,500 acres near Tifton, said that the 75 to 100 Hispanic farm workers who "normally appear" for the harvest did not show up in 2011, causing him to consider building housing in order to hire H-2A guest workers. Bland Farms, with almost $100 million a year in sales, relies on 350 H-2A workers. Stanley Farms relies on a mix of H-2A and local workers for its 1,200 acres of onions, and pays piece rates of $0.35 to $0.40 a bucket.

Blackberry farmer J.W. Paulk, who acknowledged hiring unauthorized workers, raised piece rates from $3 to $3.50 a box or 17 percent to expand the number of pickers from 150 to 180, up 20 percent (large 96 ounce boxes can generate a piece rate of $4.50). Paulk said that most blackberry pickers earn $100 for 10-hour days. Blueberry Farms in Baxley estimated that it lost 10 percent of its 2011 crop when only 80 of the usual 120 migrants arrived. The Los Angeles Times profiled Paulk's supervisor as he went door-to-door in Hispanic areas seeking more pickers, emphasizing the quest for "warm bodies" to pick berries and the absence of long-run relationships between Paulk and his seasonal harvesters.

Some 10,225 Georgia farms reported hiring 48,100 workers and paying them $361 million in 2007 (the same person employed on two farms is counted twice); the 766 farms reporting 10 or more workers accounted for almost 25,000 hired workers. The Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (UI data) reported that 2,300 agricultural establishments employed an average 25,400 workers in 2007, ranging from a low of 22,500 in January to a high of 28,700 in May.

Bloomberg. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a June 15, 2011 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations said that the "American dream cannot survive if we keep telling the dreamers to go elsewhere. It's what I call national suicide, and that's not hyperbole?every day what we fail ? to fix our broken immigration laws is a day that we inflict a wound on our economy."

Bloomberg continued that we "must ensure that major industries, such as agriculture and tourism, that rely on those workers just starting up the economic ladder, have access to foreign workers when they cannot fill the jobs with American workers. These employers want a legal workforce, but our current system just makes that extremely difficult. Firms have to go through multiple levels of approvals to do basic hiring, and in Georgia, where they crack down on illegal farm workers, farm owners are experiencing severe labor shortages that's driving up their cost and leaving crops unharvested. At a time when food prices are rising, this is the last thing American consumers and farmers need."

Richard Fausset, "Fewer hands in the fields," Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2011. Kevin Bouffard, "Putnam: Crucial Issues Looming," The Ledger, June 16, 2011. Craig Schneider, "Farm owners, workers worry about immigration law's impact on crops," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 4, 2011. Richard Craver, "Reynolds' farm worker concessions show evolution of handling conflict," Winston-Salem Journal, May 8, 2011. Estabrook, Barry. 2011. Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Andrews McMeel Publishing. http://politicsoftheplate.com

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