Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Human Resources: Ending slavery in Florida's tomato fields

A Florida tomato picker, Mariano Lucas was forced to work without pay and was regularly beaten and chained inside a box truck at night by a family of farm bosses who held him and a dozen other workers captive.

You might think this nightmarish story took place in some dark period of American history. Unbelievably, it's a reality today, in the vast tomato fields of south Florida. In December 2008, Lucas' captors were sentenced to 12 years in prison for "enslaving and brutalizing migrant workers." At their sentencing, Mariano stood before his former captors and told the judge, "Bosses should not beat up the people who work with them."

Nobody knows exactly how many people are enslaved in Florida, but federal civil rights officials have prosecuted seven slavery operations involving over 1,000 workers in Florida's fields since 1997. One federal prosecutor called Florida "ground zero for modern-day slavery."

In an effort to address the systemic exploitation of Florida's farmworkers, Bon Appetit Management Company, a socially responsible food service company operating 400 university and corporate cafes in 29 states, and The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworker organization spearheading the fight for more humane farm labor standards in Florida, have forged a new agreement that frames acceptable working conditions and enforces those conditions with a strict code of conduct.

Under this plan, which goes beyond the CIW's agreements with other food industry companies, tomatoes will cease to be an undifferentiated commodity crop and growers who treat their workers more fairly will be rewarded with more business. Additionally, Bon Appetit is sending a strong message to growers that the company is prepared to cease buying tomatoes altogether if the growers don't follow the code of conduct adopted by the company.

Employing both the carrot (better pay for growers) and the stick (enforceability), Bon Appetit and the CIW aim to drive lasting changes that will help agricultural workers achieve the level of dignity afforded all American workers while providing sustainable competitive advantages for growers.

"America's agricultural workers do jobs that are far more difficult and dangerous than the average retail or restaurant worker, yet these jobs are critical to our entire food chain. When I met with workers in the fields and saw first-hand how difficult their lives are, I knew that I could not, in good conscience, contribute to such a system. We buy almost 5 million pounds of tomatoes a year. I decided to use that power to make a real difference in the supply chain," said Fedele Bauccio, CEO of Bon Appetit Management Company.

"The future of a fairer tomato industry is being written today, and this agreement is a rough draft. It's not a final product, and it's not meant to be. But it is a great first cut at building a relationship between farmworkers and their employers based on a genuine appreciation for the value of farmworkers' labor - something that has been absent since the birth of the agricultural industry in Florida - and driven by a vision of universal human rights. We see this as a golden opportunity for Florida's smaller, family-scale farmers to gain access to a market that has traditionally been beyond their reach, and to help elevate Florida's agricultural industry in the process," said Gerardo Reyes of the CIW.

The agreement includes guarantees of real improvements in wages and working conditions, and provides preferential purchasing incentives for growers who are willing to raise the bar yet further. Highlights of the agreement include:

* A "Minimum Fair Wage" - Workers will be paid a wage premium that reflects the unique rigors and uncertainty of farm labor.

* An end to traditional forms of wage abuse - Through standards requiring growers to implement time clocks and to reconcile wages paid with pounds harvested, workers will be paid for every hour worked and every pound picked.

* Worker empowerment - Workers will be informed of their rights through a system jointly developed by the growers and the CIW. Growers will also collaborate with the CIW and Bon Appetit to implement and enforce a process for workers to pursue complaints without fear of retribution.

* Worker safety - A worker-controlled health and safety committee will give farmworkers a voice in addressing potentially dangerous working conditions, including pesticide, heat, and machinery issues.

* Third-party monitoring - Growers will permit third-party monitoring that includes worker participation.

"We congratulate Bon Appetit Management Company for their support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to bring humane treatment to those that bring the food to our table. This historic partnership between the food industry and farmworkers can end the slavery and slave-like conditions that farmworkers are subjected to in Florida and other states. Si Se Puede!" Dolores Huerta, President of the Dolores Huerta Foundation for Community Organizing and Co-Founder of the United Farm Workers."

Source: Bon Appetit Management Company; Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
Putting principles before profits