Growers create SAFE haven


Published: Sunday, January 29, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 10:24 p.m.

WASHINGTON - Jay Taylor recalls the seeds being sown last spring in a tomato packinghouse in Palmetto, Fla., where members of the restaurant industry and Florida agriculture met to discuss an escalating labor war.

That March, Taco Bell had agreed to pay tomato pickers in Florida an extra penny per pound and to demand new labor standards from growers after a three-year boycott and a run of bad press. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the boycott organizer, had cast an unflattering spotlight on growers with a shame campaign against a big corporate customer.

Vegetable growers and other restaurant chains knew the Bell deal, the first of its kind, tolled for them.

Taylor said the message from restaurant representatives was clear: "You guys have got to do something about this issue."

That fall, the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association partnered with a migrant charity group to launch a labor initiative called Socially Accountable Farm Employers, or SAFE. McDonald's, also a target of the Immokalee workers, announced earlier this month that it would make compliance with SAFE a prerequisite for Florida tomato growers to do business with the chain's suppliers.

Organizers of SAFE, including the growers association, said they have worked closely with the National Restaurant Association, although a spokeswoman for the restaurant group said it did not participate in the meeting described by Taylor.

However, growers met Friday in Miami with representatives of the restaurant industry, including the National Restaurant Association. The growers want support from more chains to make SAFE the standard for farm labor practices in Florida, and possibly other states if the program catches on.

The Immokalee coalition calls the industry initiative a sham to avoid more important reforms, including wage increases.

"The agriculture industry and the fast food industry and McDonald's need to recognize we workers are human beings and adults," Lucas Benitez, a spokesman for the coalition, said through an interpreter. "They need to stop treating us like children who can be just pushed off to the side."

The sparring shows how these industries are responding to mounting pressure for more corporate responsibility in a sector that has long simmered with complaints about abuse of immigrants, many of them illegal. It takes place against the backdrops of expanding global trade and a debate about whether to crack down on immigration or offer legal status to illegal immigrants.

"Short of solving the immigration problem," said Ray Gilmer, spokesman for the growers association, "we are allowing for much greater scrutiny of the workplace conditions and hope this process will weed out, through the marketplace, the bad operators."

U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, a Bartow Republican whose family is in the citrus business, said the immigration debate is vital to Florida because reforms that focus solely on a crackdown would devastate agriculture, tourism and construction.

"I think it has very serious consequences that have to be thought through," he said. "Obviously we can't continue to turn a blind eye forever, but labeling them felons is not the way to go either."

The battle over farm labor standards highlights the status of many of the immigrants whose fate is under debate.

The fruit and vegetable association says abuse of migrant workers is rare, but growers agreed the Taco Bell deal was a wakeup call to improve their practices and image.

"We need to have some kind of mechanism in place to assure our customer base that they are not going to be a target of an outfit like the CIW," said Taylor, of Taylor and Fulton Inc., about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Taylor has been a chief negotiator with McDonald's and other restaurant representatives.

The workers argue they are being cut out of decisions affecting them.

Because of the boycott supported by a number of student and religious groups, Taco Bell agreed to pay an extra penny per pound to Florida tomato workers, which the coalition calls a significant income boost. SAFE organizers, however, are focused on improving conditions for farm laborers who receive fewer protections under federal law and the laws of many states than other workers.

SAFE doesn't promise higher wages, but some organizers say it could lead to that.

Gilmer, of the produce association, said restaurants buy about half of Florida's tomatoes. While Taco Bell buys less than 1 percent of the state crop, or 10 million pounds of tomatoes a year, growers say McDonald's buys 1.5 percent.

McDonald's declined to provide an executive for an interview but released a statement that supported SAFE. "McDonald's has been assured by our suppliers that the collective impact of SAFE and the new grower practices are better for employees than the 'penny per pound' proposal," it said.

A company spokeswoman said McDonald's would require SAFE compliance from Florida tomato growers, but it is unclear when that would be in effect because only one grower has gone through the certification process so far.

SAFE, a partnership of the growers association and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association based in Immokalee, has hired the testing and auditing company Intertek to inspect farm operations for compliance with a code of conduct.

The code prohibits forced or child labor and requires payment of full wages and benefits, a healthy and safe work environment and adequate housing. Taco Bell and its parent company, Yum Brands Inc., also offered a code of conduct in its deal with the Immokalee workers. McDonald's and other companies already had their own codes but enforcement is the issue now.

The Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association said the SAFE process is rigorous and that many growers would need to make changes to pass. They expect the program to expand to other produce, possibly including citrus, and to other states.

Bob Emerson, a professor of food and resource economics at the University of Florida who has looked at the program, said SAFE appears meant to lift standards for farm workers to levels enjoyed by the rest of the workforce.

"Most of them are kind of standard employment practices," he said.

The Immokalee workers argue any program would fall short if wages aren't addressed and workers aren't included from the beginning. Benitez said workers want to control their own destiny.

"The industry has finally seen that this is something they're going to have to deal with," he said, "but they're trying to do it by going around the workers and going around the economic relief that we need."

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