Florida tomato pickers, among some of the poorest paid workers in the United States, have won another victory in their fight to earn a decent living wage.
Yum! Brands, Inc., one of the world's largest restaurant companies with 34,000 establishments, recently agreed to pay a penny a pound more for the tomatoes four more of its chains buy from Florida growers. The increase nearly doubles the amount workers can earn for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick and sell to Yum! The going price now is between 40 and 45 cents a bucket. This new agreement will hike that by 32 cents.
Yum! Brands' decision comes two years after one of its chains, Taco Bell, agreed to a similar hike in the face of intense national pressure. Others that will now be included in the deal are Pizza Hut, Long John Silver's, A&W All-American Food Restaurant, and KFC. In April, mega-chain McDonald's also announced an agreement to boost the pay of Florida pickers by a penny a pound.
"If two of the largest restaurant chains are doing this, it's only a matter of time 'til others follow," said Julia Perkins, of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or CIW , which has spearheaded the drive for better pay and working conditions for tomato pickers. CIW is one of the local partners with which Oxfam America works.
"This is an important precedent that's being set," said Guadalupe Gamboa, a program officer in Oxfam America's US regional office. "And it also furthers CIW's strategy to go after other major buyers of tomatoes and eventually get them all to pay a higher price that will be translated into higher wages for a lot more farm workers."
During the winter months, about 90 percent of the fresh tomatoes consumed in the United States come from Florida, said Perkins. According to the Florida Tomato Committee, the state shipped more than 1.2 billion pounds of tomatoes in interstate commerce during the 2005-2006 growing season. During the peak season, Florida growers hire about 33,000 people.
CIW has been working with many of them since 1993 when it first began organizing in a borrowed room at a church. In 2001, it launched a national boycott of Taco Bell, which had long denied responsibility for the bad working conditions and below-poverty-level wages at the farms that supplied it with tomatoes. Students, religious groups, and labor organizations all got behind the boycott, galvanizing support for CIW's cause.
"It's a good model for other organizations to follow that are trying to improve wages and conditions for workers," said Gamboa. "It shows you can get concrete and positive results for the poorest workers in the country."
And there is no good reason for companies not to embrace the campaign.
"It's doable from a financial perspective, an administrative perspective, and it's good for your company's marketing," said Perkins, who has high hopes that other corporations will follow the lead set by Yum! and McDonald's. Burger King is on her list.
"Consumers have really gotten behind this," said Perkins. "Burger King has promised consumers you get to have it your way. It's just a matter of time before they have to make good on that promise."