Reversing its long held position, the Florida tomato industry is offering what it calls a social responsibility program designed to pay tomato pickers more money.

UPDATED: Florida tomato industry changes position on farmworker pay

On Feb. 16, the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Growers Exchange trade group said it had rescinded its policy of prohibiting members from participating in wage supplementation programs and providing payroll or personnel data to pay workers additional wages.

The exchange, which said it made the decision last fall, had been criticized by labor activists who had worked with fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell, to pressure Florida’s tomato growers into paying farmworkers an extra penny per pound of tomatoes picked.

Exchange executive vice president Reggie Brown has long stated tomato growers didn’t oppose tomato purchasers paying farmworkers extra money, but for legal reasons the industry didn’t want to become a conduit through which the money flows.

UPDATED: Florida tomato industry changes position on farmworker pay

Brown said the industry hopes the program — which also includes a grower code of conduct designed to work in conjunction with their customers’ social responsibility programs — resolves any issues surrounding worker pay in connection with the penny-per-pound movement. Numerous protests organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), along with a 2008 U.S. Senate committee hearing on the issue, have received media exposure.

“We never objected to fast-food companies paying extra wages directly to the workers or through any other mechanism they want to engage in for social accountability,” Brown said. “This is a business decision and is an effort to comply with requests from our customers to enable them to meet social accountability expectations and demand.”

The program, open to retail and foodservice customers buying from participating exchange growers, allows those customers to designate what supplemental wages would pass from growers to workers in through an escrow account.

Grower-shippers and participating companies would determine how the money is distributed to the workers via the escrow accounts, Brown said.

Tomato grower resistance to the industry’s previous stance began to decrease last summer when a couple of small organic grower-shippers entered into penny-per-pound agreements with the CIW and Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market Inc. In the fall, Plant City, Fla.-based East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc. struck similar deals with Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. and contract foodservice purveyor Compass Group North America.

Lucas Benitez, a CIW spokesman, said farmworkers should have a bigger role in the grower conduct element.

"On the one hand, this shows just how far the Campaign for Fair Food has come," he said. "Two years ago, the tomato growers exchange testified before the U.S. Senate that the penny-per-pound raise was not just impossible, but illegal. Today, they are embracing the program and calling it their own.  But while a wage increase is important, it can't be a license for continued labor abuse."

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, said the FFVA hasn’t been that close to the controversy but said the produce industry needs to watch the issue.

“I have thought for a long time that the industry needs to be paying attention to what’s going on here because there are potential downstream implications from any type of move like this,” he said. “This isn’t limited to Florida and is something that could apply anywhere.”