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April 2003, Volume 9, Number 2

Florida: Tomatoes, Pesticides, Housing

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers held a 10-day hunger strike involving 30 to 50 protestors outside the Irvine, California headquarters of Taco Bell Corp. in February-March 2003; Taco Bell is one of the fast-food industry's biggest tomato buyers for its 6,500 restaurants. The Coalition wants the piece rate for picking tomatoes in southwestern Florida raised from $0.45 per 32-pound container to $0.65: the average retail price for tomatoes has risen from 67 cents per pound in 1980 to $1.32 in 2002.

The CIW is sponsoring a boycott of Taco Bell. Taco Bell responded: "The farm workers do not work for Taco Bell, they work for Six L's Packing Co., one of the many farms that we get our tomatoes from. Our business represents less than one percent of Six L's business."

Mecca Farms, one of Palm Beach County's largest growers, agreed in March 2003 to pay laborers an additional $4 for every day they worked at the company's tomato-packing house in Lantana between 1997 and March 2002. Mecca Farms argued that the laborers, who did not earn the minimum wage, never worked for the company, but for contractors.

Field workers were paid 40 cents per bucket of tomatoes, and plant workers were not paid for time when the equipment broke down or when they were waiting for vegetables to sort.

Pesticides. Florida growers use more pesticides per acre than growers elsewhere, primarily because the climate is conducive to bugs in the $6.4 billion a year farm industry. The Lake Worth-based Migrant Farmworker Justice Project revised the Florida Agricultural Worker Safety Act, also known as the Right to Know Law, enacted in 1994 but with a sunset provision that allowed it to expire in 1998. The bill required Florida growers to inform their workers of the health effects of chemicals applied to crops. It has been re-introduced, and is expected to be approved in 2003.

There are 1,992 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules that establish worker pesticide training and exposure limits, but they require growers to provide detailed information on pesticides only after there has been an accident. The Florida law required that such information be provided to workers before they went to work, not just in cases of emergency.

Housing. In Manatee county, commissioners pledged $400,000 in March 2003 to build a 40-unit apartment for migrants in Palmetto, provided the county receives a $3 million federal grant. The apartments will be near the Tillman Full-Service Center, which runs an array of programs for farm workers and their children, including daycare. Commissioners also pledged to inspect the county's 22 permitted labor camps to assess needed improvements.

In 1980, commissioners blocked a proposed federally funded 79-unit development in part because farmers worried that farm workers living together might unionize, according to the Housing Director. Manatee is fifth among Florida countries in the number of farm workers, after Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Polk and Dade counties.

In 2002, Representative Frank Peterman (D-St. Petersburg) sponsored a bill that prohibited employers from charging workers for tools such as buckets, bags, shovels and clippers. In 2003, he is sponsoring legislation, HB 1327, that would allow workers to sue growers in state court when crew bosses fail to pay workers minimum wages.

Citrus. Florida citrus is worth about $1.6 billion a year. The state of Sao Paulo, Brazil produces oranges cheaper, but must pay a 29 percent tariff on orange juice concentrate that is exported to the US. US Sugar's Southern Gardens Citrus Processing Plant in Clewiston processes about 20 million 90-pound boxes of oranges a year to produce 120 million gallons of orange juice during the October-June harvest- it is the first new plant in Florida in 20 years.

Brazil's Sao Paulo state has 1.8 million acres of citrus, compared to 800,000 acres in Florida; Sao Paulo produces 45 percent of the world's orange juice, and Florida 40 percent. Brazilian costs per acre are estimated at $260 an acre, and Florida's cost at $722 an acre.

Peppers. Pero Family Farms of Delray Beach is the largest US pepper grower. Pero requested 370 H-2A workers in 1997. Pero withdrew its application after DOL said it failed to interview and hire US workers and included unlawful requirements in its clearance order used to recruit US workers, such as requiring applicants to have at least 29 days experience harvesting vegetables. Critics said the production standard in the Pero contract was unrealistic, requiring workers to pick an average of 180 to 200 buckets of peppers a day. Pero planned to house the H-2A workers in a camp owed by Osceola Farms, a sugar company that used to hire H-2A cane cutters.

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