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Florida Tomato Growers Exchange reaches accord with worker coalition

by Chip Carter | November 16, 2010
After years of negotiations, the Maitland, FL-based Florida Tomato Growers Exchange reached an agreement Nov. 16 with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers that will pay the state's tomato harvesters an additional penny per pound of product picked.

The agreement also establishes a cooperative complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program and worker-to-worker education programs.

"Florida tomato growers value their employees - they’re key to our ability to grow tomatoes for Florida and the rest of the country and we couldn’t operate without them," Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the exchange and manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, told The Produce News Nov. 17. “We are and have been committed to long-term solutions that improve the lives of our workers and their families. We’ve taken this step and we’re focused on moving forward. Florida tomato growers have been industry leaders -- in food safety for example, and establishing mandatory regulations enforced by the state -- and our agreement with the coalition starts us in the process of taking that leadership role in social accountability.”

The agreement likely will raise the annual average salary of each of Florida’s estimated 30,000 harvesters from roughly $10,000 to $17,000.

Over the past few years, several Florida tomato growers agreed to and have paid the penny a pound increase. But while negotiations were ongoing, that money remained in a trust fund.

With the new agreement in place, that money will now "flow back to the farm to be paid to the workers on their paycheck in a line item," Mr. Brown said.

Calling it a watershed moment in Florida agriculture, coalition leader Lucas Benitez said, "Today is not about looking back at the problems of the past. ... We are coming together as an industry in which it is finally possible to say that real, verifiable change is not only possible, but underway."

"This is a work in progress, and this partnership will get stronger over time," Mr. Brown said. "It will not be completed overnight. As time goes by, we are confident that we will be able to weed out any bad actors and, working together, build a stronger, more sustainable industry.”