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April 2013, Volume 19, Number 2

Florida Tomatoes, Southeast

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) continues to press supermarkets such as Lakeland, Florida-based Publix to support its Fair Food Code of Conduct, under which tomato buyers pay an extra 1.5 cents a pound to farmers for the tomatoes they buy. The farmers, in turn, raise the piece rates they pay to tomato pickers by a cent a pound, from the usual $0.40 to $0.75 per 32-pound bucket.

Under the FFCC, farmers promise not to require workers to overfull or cup their buckets, and workers pledge not to fluff or make their buckets appear fuller than they really are. The CIW says that the additional payments to tomato pickers are $8 million a year.

Publix says "we will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor. That is the responsibility of their employer, and we believe all parties would be better served if appropriate wages were paid by growers to their workers, and we were charged accordingly." Pacific Tomato Growers, one of the first tomato growers to sign onto the FFCC, provided lunch to the marchers in March 2013 as they passed by en route to Publix headquarters in Lakeland.

There are over 160 "worker centers" rather than unions such as the CIW, including the Restaurant Opportunities Center, Our Walmart, and the Retail Action Project. Because they are not unions, worker centers are exempt from the Labor Management Reporting Disclosure Act, which requires unions to report member and financial data.

Florida produces most of the mature-green tomatoes (picked green and gassed with ethylene to turn them red) between November and May. During these same months, Mexico exports mostly vine-ripe tomatoes to the US, that is, tomatoes that are allowed to turn red on the vine. Florida tomato sales have been falling, to $250 million in 2011, while Mexican tomato exports to the US rose to $1.8 billion.

In 1996, Mexico and the US agreed on a minimum price of 21.69 cents a pound for Mexican tomatoes exported to the US in winter months to protect Florida tomato growers. In February 2013, Mexican growers agreed to raise the minimum price to $0.31 a pound, and to set even higher minimum prices for specialty and green-house tomatoes. Under the revised agreement, Mexican growers will earn higher profits if US demand for tomatoes is unchanged.

The Los Angeles Times reported on February 23, 2013 that farmers, most of whom are Republicans, want their party to embrace legalization of unauthorized farm workers. Joe Wright of Avon Park, with 1,500 dairy cows on his 1,300-acre V&W Farms, says "We cannot milk cows without Hispanic labor, period."

He continued: "I hired an Anglo once. He made it 30 days, but he didn't make it 60." Wright says that "people screaming over illegal immigration?[don't] have a clue over how their own lifestyle [is] dependent on these immigrants for food and hospitality. The people complaining [about illegal migration] seem to be totally out of touch with how our Florida economy works."

Georgia. The state's 2013 budget calls for eliminating $150,000 that supported liaison positions at the state Department of Agriculture to help farmers obtain guest workers via the H-2A program. Farmers feared that HB 56, which requires most of the state's employers to enroll in E-Verify, would make it harder to hire unauthorized workers. DOA liaison staff aimed to help farmers to obtain legal workers via the H-2A program.

Georgia's HB 56 law required employers of 500 or more workers to use E-Verify to check the legal status of new hires after January 1, 2012, and those with 100 or more employees to use E-Verify July 1, 2012. Beginning July 1, 2013, employers with 11 or more employees must enroll in E-Verify (employers with 10 or fewer employees do not have to enroll).

Louisiana. The state's farmers were certified to fill 7,563 jobs with H-2A workers in 2011, including 2,563 in the sugar cane sector; Louisiana was second only to North Carolina in the number of farm jobs certified to be filled by H-2A guest workers. The Louisiana Sugar Cane Cooperative said that 130 of its 230 employees in 2012 were H-2A workers.