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Florida Tomato Pickers' Wins Could Extend To Dairy, Berry Workers

Farm workera at Lipman Produce load tomatoes on a truck on Jan. 16, 2014 in Naples, Fla. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. joined an initiative that will require its Florida tomato suppliers to increase farm worker pay and protect workers from forced labor and sexual assault, among other things.

Farm workers in America have long been among the nation's poorest paid and most abused workers. But conditions have been improving for Florida tomato pickers, and those advances may soon reach other farm fields, according to the annual report released Thursday by the Fair Food Standards Council, or FFSC, a labor oversight group based in Sarasota, Fla.

The biggest change in Florida tomato fields is likely wages. In the last four years, the 30,000 tomato pickers covered by the FFSC have earned an additional $15 million in wages, translating to a 50-to-70 percent raise for each worker, and other working conditions have improved, the report found. The increase comes from a premium of a penny-per-pound that 12 corporate buyers, including Whole Foods and Wal-Mart, began paying to growers.

The penny-per-pound is part of an unusual partnership between workers, growers and corporate buyers called the Fair Food Program, which is overseen by the FFSC. To participate, growers must comply with annual audits by the FFSC, and fix any violations or else face suspension from the program. But while the audits are standard practice for corporate social responsibility programs in general, the FFSC is more stringent than most, checking working conditions that regulators, public or private, rarely vet.

So what are the requirements?

Growers in the Fair Food Program are prohibited from firing workers who complain about working conditions. Paychecks must be calculated based on electronic time card systems, which are difficult to fudge. Growers must hire their workers directly rather than through labor contractors, comply with surprise inspections, and they have to fire supervisors who abuse or sexually harass worker, or who allow children to work in their fields. Workers' complaints, collected via a 24-7 hotline, are investigated within two days of being received.

If the FFSC finds that a grower both failed to follow the rules and failed to correct them once caught, the corporate buyer switches to another approved grower, and the noncompliant grower loses business.

This fall, Whole Foods was the first retailer to introduce the Fair Food Label, a labeling program for tomatoes grown under FFSC, in stores. "It's been a wonderful program," says Erik Brown, senior global produce buyer for Whole Foods, adding that it helped him to bring "dignity" to his work.

In the program's first four years, FFSC staff interviewed 7,500 workers in person, and processed nearly 600 complaints from workers, according to the report. Of those, the FFSC found about 40 percent were valid reports of violations of the Fair Food Program; another third of complaints were for conditions not covered by the program. Over the same period, the FFSC suspended seven growers from its program.

"This [program] isn't just an outlier. It's unique," says Gregory Regaignon, research director for the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, which studies labor and social movements here and abroad. The biggest difference between the FFP and other social responsibility initiatives, he says, is that the rules and their enforcement are designed by workers, rather than companies looking to insulate their brand from criticism.

It may not be unique for long: FFP advocates are working with retailers and even other industries to duplicate their model.

This winter, Wal-Mart will be expanding the program to tomato fields along the Southeast coast, where agribusinesses participating in the FPP have additional fields. Leaders from CIW are also talking to dairy farmers in Vermont, construction workers in Texas and garment workers in Bangladesh about how to translate the tomato model for their industries. (The group says it has no plans, yet, to work with Mexico's tomato workers, whose abusive working conditions were recently exposed in a Los Angeles Times investigation.)

Closer to home, the FFSC is considering other crops for expansion. Though no agreements with growers have been signed yet, fair food strawberries could be coming soon to a store near you.

Tracie McMillan is the author of The American Way of Eating, a New York Times bestseller, and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. You can follow her on Twitter @tmmcmillan.

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