CIWPhoto: Scott RobertsonOver the past week, much attention has been focused on the “B” part of that classic U.S. sandwich, the BLT. The swine flu outbreak has quite rightly raised questions about the environemtal/public health implications of modern industrial hog production. Almost lost amid the furor was much happier news about the “T” part of the delectable lunch item.

In Florida, source of 90 percent of winter tomatoes consumed in the United States, farmworkers have for decades faced outright exploitative conditions: miserly and stagnant wages, lack of healthcare, and living conditions that wouldn’t have been out of place in Apartheid South Africa, as I and many others have documented. Given these dismal standards, no one can be shocked that in extreme cases, a modern form of slavery takes hold, in which workers are held against their will and harvest tomatoes essentially without pay. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, along with allied groups Just Harverst an the Student Farmworker Alliance, has been working for years to address the situation. Methodically, in a kind of two-steps-forward, one-step-back way, they’ve asserted and begun to establish basic human rights for the people who pick our tomatoes. In a trip in February to Immokalee, I saw first hand not only how far the workers have come, but also how far they still have to go. Conditions in Immokalee remain shockingly bad.

Well, this week, the folks who pick our tomatoes took another step forward. Bon Appétit Management Company, which runs food service for 400 university and corporate cafés in 29 states, has signed an agreement with the CIW that “frames acceptable working conditions and enforces those conditions with a strict code of conduct,” a press release signalling the agreement states.  The agreement goes beyond the deals that CIW has signed with McDonald’s, Burger King, Yum Foods, and another large-scale tomato buyers, which ostensibly give workers a a pennty-per-pound raise. That extra penny per pound, which would represent the first substantial raise for Florida’s tomato pickers in decades, are being held up by the intrangisence of the few entities that control most of the farmland in the immokalee area.

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According to the press release, the Bon Appetit deal contains the following:

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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 Appétit 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.

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

The deal essentially ices out the area’s large-scale growers — at least until they improve pay and conditions. And it opens large potential markets for the state’s small and mid-sized farms. “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.

With Bon Apetit rejecting dismal conditions and slave labor for the workers who pick the food it buys, I hope other large food-service providors like Sodexo and Aramark jump on board.