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April 2009, Volume 15, Number 2

Florida, North Carolina

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, founded in 1993 in Immokalee, threatened boycotts of fast-food chains that buy mature green tomatoes from about 15 major Florida growers between November and April. Florida tomatoes are picked while still green in 32-pound buckets, and the CIW wanted the piece rate raised from the typical $0.45 a bucket to $0.75.

In 2005, Yum! Brands (Taco Bell) agreed to increase payments to growers by a cent a pound and establish a mechanism that ensures the extra penny is passed on to pickers. McDonald's in 2007 and Burger King in 2008 signed similar agreements with the CIW. In December 2008, the CIW signed an agreement with Subway, the largest restaurant buyer of tomatoes, that obliges Subway to pay its tomato growers an additional 1.5 cents a pound and to provide an extra cent a pound to tomato pickers.

However, the money paid by these fast-food chains is accumulating in escrow accounts because the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which represents the 15 major tomato growers, says its grower members would face legal issues if they allowed "third parties" to dictate wages, and has prohibited its members from participating. The FTGE is coordinating workshops to educate its members about human trafficking. Two labor contractors were convicted of enslaving nine migrant workers in Immokalee, where about 40 percent of Florida tomatoes are grown.

Governor Charlie Crist met with CIW leaders in March 2009 and pledged to work with them to eliminate slavery in Florida.

Many of Florida's tomatoes are grown in the southeastern corner of the state near the city of Immokalee; in the 2000 census, 71 percent of the 20,000 residents were Hispanic, 46 percent were born abroad, and 40 percent had incomes below the poverty line. The Immokalee Water & Sewer District in 2009 briefly required a valid US or state-issued ID and a written lease in order to obtain water, and district staff confiscated what they believed to be false documents when they encountered them. A documentary, Immokalee USA, chronicles the lives of farm workers in the city.

Local farm worker advocates argued that it would be far better to require a deposit and allow customers to present documents issued by foreign governments to establish identity to meet the district's goal of avoiding unpaid water bills. The district agreed, and in April 2009 accepted documents issued by foreign governments to establish identity, but said its staff would continue to call police if they were presented with apparently false documents.

Sugar. The US Sugar Corporation in November 2008 agreed to sell 181,000 acres of farm land to the state of Florida for $1.3 billion in a slimmed-down deal intended to rescue the Everglades while letting the company stay in business. In April 2009, the state reduced its bid to $530 million for 72,500 acres, including 32,000 acres of citrus that will be used by the state for water storage and 40,500 acres of cane land that will be rented by US Sugar for $150 an acre, up from a previous $50 an acre rent.

In June 2008, the state agreed to pay $1.75 billion for 187,000 acres of land and other assets owned by US Sugar between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades National Park. Under that agreement, US Sugar would have ceased sugar cane production by 2014, displacing 1,700 workers and creating a flow way that allows fresh water to run into the Everglades.

North Carolina. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (www.floc.com) calls itself both a social movement and a labor union. During the 1980s, FLOC mounted boycotts of Campbell Soup (Vlasic Pickle) and Heinz to persuade them to recognize FLOC as the bargaining agent for farm workers who picked tomatoes and cucumbers for the growers from whom they bought these commodities in Ohio and Michigan. In 1986, Vlasic agreed with FLOC's demands and raised the prices they paid growers enough to cover the higher wages demanded by FLOC.

FLOC turned to North Carolina, staged a boycott of Mt. Olive Pickles, and in 1999 signed contracts with Mt. Olive and the North Carolina Growers Association, the largest single employer of H-2A farm workers in the US. NCGA member farmers hire Mexican guest workers to harvest cucumbers and tobacco. Mt Olive agreed to pay its growers an additional 10 percent so that they could raise the pickers' wages.

FLOC is currently putting pressure on Reynolds Tobacco, emphasizing the dangers of nicotine poisoning or green tobacco sickness to farm workers. Nicotine poisoning causes nausea, vomiting, dizziness and, in severe cases, dehydration. It afflicts tobacco workers when nicotine on moist tobacco leaves seeps through their pores as they hand-harvest the leaves. The symptoms typically last 12 to 48 hours.

Major cigarette manufacturers have begun to acknowledge green tobacco sickness and insert provisions in their contracts with growers that require them to take steps to reduce the risks of workers contracting the sickness.

Janine Zeitline, "Immokalee workers may be denied water service," Fort Myers News-Press, March 31, 2009. Jerry W. Jackson, "Florida tomato growers sponsor seminar to counter human trafficking," Orlando Sentinel, February 27, 2009.


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