IMMOKALEE, Fla. — For those accustomed to middle-class wages and workplaces, recent improvements in the region's tomato fields might not seem radical — time clocks, outdoor shade and 80 extra bucks a week.
But for southwest Florida's farmworkers, they've been huge.
Historic, even, says Wilson Perez, one of the people in the middle of changes to the state's $650 million tomato industry. Most recently, the largest retailer on the planet, Walmart, pledged unprecedented support to farmworkers.
"I have lived something children will one day read about," the 23-year-old says. "And it's something that's still going on."
The "something" is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Fair Food program, which after two decades of high-profile struggle, became a functional reality in 2011.
That was when the industry group representing more than 90 percent of Florida's tomato growers agreed to improve workplace standards and pass workers one cent more for every pound of tomatoes harvested.
The key word here is "pass." The growers don't pay the extra penny. Instead, the bonus comes from corporate buyers who agree to the program's premium.
For decades, workers have made about 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket they pick; The Fair Food premium raises that to 82 cents, which means their annual earnings of about $10,000 could rise to more than $16,000; the more participating companies, the higher the payouts.
In addition to Walmart, the world's major fast food companies, food service corporations and two national grocery chains are paying the bonus.
Since late 2011 at least $11 million more in wages have reached farmworkers during the winter growing season, when Southwest Florida supplies more than 90 percent of the nation's tomatoes.
It's only been flowing about two years, but it's made a big difference, Perez says. With a per-capita income of $9,518, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 45 percent of Immokalee's approximately 20,000 residents live below the poverty line. Now, when there's work in the fields, Perez says his extra $60-$80 a week goes for food for his wife and 8-month-old son, his $1,000 monthly rent and, most importantly, to send to his little brothers and sisters in Guatemala for their schooling.
"I don't want them to struggle like I've had to," he says.
For 24-year-old Immokalee single mom Mely Perez (no relation to Wilson), the extra cash to feed her two young sons is helpful, but what really feels historic to her is being able to make them breakfast in the morning before walking them to school from her tiny house, for which she pays $700 a month.
In the days before the agreement, she'd slip out in the pre-dawn dark while the boys were sleeping to catch a bus for the fields, leaving them with a friend until she returned that night, aching and exhausted.
The Fair Food program prohibits the longtime practice of hauling workers to the fields early, then making them wait to work until the dew dries. Now that unpaid time is a thing of the past, the Mexican-born Perez can spend her extra hours with her little boys.
Immokalee-area business people say it's too early to say for sure what the infusion of bonus money may mean to the town's economy, but the mood appears hopefully optimistic.
"I can tell you we have a number of commercial projects underway now that weren't two years ago," says Bradley Muckel who heads Immokalee's Community Redevelopment Agency. "I can't say for sure whether they stem from the penny per pound or not, but I would love to think that's the case — that would be wonderful."
In addition to talk of a big-box retailer scoping out the town, "there are other commercial entities looking at Immokalee that weren't before," he says, "so maybe it does have something to do with it."
Wilson Perez realizes much of the world may not be aware of his colleagues' recent victories, but he'd like it to.
"Those who don't have contact with the agricultural world — the people in cities — tomatoes just arrive in their stores (and) they don't think about how they get there, about us — the people who pick them with our hands, and how hard the work is," he says. "But we want them to know. We want it to be important to them, because we all have to eat, and in that way, we're all connected."
Information from: The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press, http://www.news-press.com