The opening of a Florida-based Publix supermarket in South Asheville brought with it fresh produce, sensible prices and protesting farm workers.
On May 2, just days after the new store opened, numerous individuals created a picket line along Hendersonville Road across from the market, including many members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers from Immokalee, Fla., a worker-based human rights organization founded in 1993.
The group of farm workers wants Publix to join its Fair Food Program, a campaign which encourages retail food companies to use their purchasing power to require higher labor standards for farm workers who harvest the produce they buy.
Founded in 2011, Fair Food Agreements have since been created with a dozen of the world’s largest food companies. According to the Fair Food Program, over the last four growing seasons, $15 million in increased wages have been brought to Florida tomato farm workers. Although tomato farms are the only ones targeted now, more produce in different states will soon be targeted by the Fair Food Program.
She says workers on large farms in Florida were typically told to keep quiet if they wanted to keep their job, and if you spoke up, you could consider yourself fired. Now, farm worker de la Cruz says harvesters working at farms under the Fair Food Agreements are protected.
“Rather than [being] seen as tools in the field, we are seen as human beings and treated with dignity,” she says.
The program works by requiring participating buyers to only purchase tomatoes from growers who comply with the Fair Food Code of Conduct. This includes required time clocks, health and safety protections and a zero-tolerance policy for slavery and sexual harassment.
Participating corporations also pay a “penny-per-pound” premium when buying tomatoes, which is passed down through the supply chain and paid out to workers by their employers. The Fair Food Standards Council oversees all complaints against substandard farm practices, and is the only dedicated third-party monitoring organization of its kind in agriculture in the United States of America.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has successfully signed up 13 tomato retailers into the Fair Food Program, including McDonalds, Taco Bell and Publix competitors Fresh Market, Walmart, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. They say they have been unable to get Publix or Wendy’s to enter into an agreement.
Publix calls the matter a labor dispute at its core. The company argues that since growers distribute the “penny-per-pound” premium to the workers, entering into the agreement would effectively subsidize workers who are picking tomatoes for a pool of grocery stores and restaurants, not solely Publix.
Joe Parker, an activist with the Alliance for Fair Food, says Publix needs to join the collaboration.
“This is not a labor dispute, but a collaboration between workers, farmers and retailers. Publix needs to join something that’s already in motion,” he says.