PLANT CITY, Fla. — Saying it wants to help improve the lives of its workers, East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc. has broken with other Florida grower-shippers and is working with a farmworker labor group.

Becoming the first large commercial Florida tomato grower to partner with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, East Coast in September entered into a “penny per pound” agreement with Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. and the CIW.

East Coast Brokers partners with farmworker labor group

Doug Ohlemeier

Batista Madonia Jr., vice president of sales and operations for East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc., Plant City, Fla., views grape tomatoes in late October. East Coast has partnered with the Coalition of Immokalee workers to increase tomato farm and packing shed worker pay.

Then, in late September, Batista Madonia Jr., East Coast’s vice president of sales and operations, was present at a Charlotte, N.C., meeting announcing an agreement between contract foodservice purveyor Compass Group North America and the CIW to pay 1.5 cents per pound extra for all the tomatoes Compass buys with 1 cent per pound passed from the supplier directly to the field workers.

Madonia said he agreed to the partnership that he said will have the extra money going directly to workers from his payroll.

After talking with CIW people them and listening to what they had to say, Madonia said it became apparent that he “wanted to be a part of the future in this industry” and that ensuring a viable workforce that can survive would be critical.

Unpopular decision

“Although it was probably not the most popular decision, it was a decision we chose to make for our workers and for our partners in business,” Madonia said. “If there’s a way I can give them (the workers) a better standard of living, they can have a better life and if this doesn’t adversely affect my business at all, there’s no way I could not let this happen.”

Madonia, who this fall resigned his longtime membership with the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange, said industry reaction to his move was mixed.

“I just felt like it’s more important to give my workers a better standard of living instead of the benefit that my company gets by being part of that group,” he said.

Madonia said he hopes his peers respect his decision.

He said many of them have told him off the record that they support his agreement with the CIW.

Still, Madonia said he understands that he remains in a unique position where he can make decisions that other sales managers can’t make.

Madonia said some of the fast-food restaurant chains have contributed money to pay the workers. That escrow bank account, he said, is likely worth nearly $2 million.

Madonia said that money should be distributed to the people who earned it.

He said some of his workers are CIW members and said he hopes the money he pays directly to his workers will better benefit them.

East Coast grows mature greens, romas and grape tomatoes on 7,000 Florida acres, with fall production in central Florida and wintertime production in Stuart. 

It also has Eastern Shore production during the summer in Frogmore, S.C., and Mappsville, Va.