MANATEE — A leading Palmetto-based tomato producer is encouraging other growers to follow its lead and agree to improve wages and working conditions for Florida’s farmworkers.
Pacific Tomato Growers and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers announced an unprecedented deal Wednesday that will create an accounting system to pass additional money to the workers and includes complaint, health and safety programs that actively involve the workers.
The coalition has successfully pressured major chains like McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Whole Foods to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes, with the extra money going to the farmworkers. But the deal remained mostly remained on paper because Florida growers who supply the chains balked at implementing them.
The agreement will be put into practice during the current growing season, which has already begun.
Jon Esformes, an operating partner whose family co-owns Pacific Tomato Growers with the Heller family, said the company believes it is time to speak out publicly about working conditions in agriculture.
“Our two families, as owners of PTG, believe now is the time to ask other similarly responsible agricultural companies to join in the effort to bring positive change to our industry for the benefit of farm employees,” Esformes said. “It is an absolute that farmworkers must have the same protections as people working in the white-collar world.”
While the deal may set a precedent for agreements between farmworkers and other larger growers, one local company approached the announcement with skepticism because Pacific Tomato Growers has relocated a portion of its tomato production outside the United States.
“I think it’s ironic that a company that has moved the majority of its operations out of Florida into Mexico is the one cutting a deal with CIW,” said Bob Spencer, vice president of Palmetto’s West Coast Tomato.
Spencer said his company already pays farmworkers well more than minimum wage — $8.75 to $11.50 for harvesters — and finds it difficult to compete with growers, like Pacific, that use cheaper labor in Mexico.
Though he said West Coast Tomato has had talks with the coalition within the past six months, Spencer said there is no agreement imminent.
“We are thankful for the workers we have,” Spencer said. “If we treated them unfairly, they would just work somewhere else.
Ed Angrisani, a part owner of Palmetto’s Taylor & Fulton Packing, LLC, declined comment on the deal Wednesday. Several other local growers were unavailable for comment.
According to the Manatee County Farm Bureau, the county’s growers produce 40 percent of the state’s tomato crop, farming more than 12,000 acres for an economic impact of $200 million.
It has been a historically bad year for Florida tomato growers. An unusually cold winter delayed harvests and led to a glut of tomatoes during the summer. The market saturation drove down prices and led to massive losses.
Wednesday’s agreement sets up several measures, including:
n Establishing an accounting system to pay the extra penny to workers, with third-party auditing. (Farmworkers earn about 45 cents per 32-pound bucket picked.)
n Involving workers in implementing and promoting health and safety programs.
n Creating a worker-to-worker education program on employee rights. n Providing a system for workers to file complaints against their employers in which a neutral party can help resolve disputes.
Florida Tomato Growers Exchange Executive Vice President Reggie Brown said he had no opinion about Wednesday’s announcement and isn’t sure if it will set a precedent for other Florida growers. The exchange represents growers who produce about 90 percent of the round-tomato crop south of the panhandle.
“To each his own, basically,” Brown said. “The agreement is a business decision every company has to make for themselves.”
The exchange initially prohibited its members from participating in wage supplementation programs over legal concerns before changing course in February. Brown said the exchange now offers a pass-through program that would help members make sure their workers are getting the extra penny per pound in their paychecks. But no companies are using the program, he said.
The coalition, which claims membership of about 4,000 mostly migrant workers, gained national attention in recent years when it reached deals with some fast-food chains. Its most recent deal came with food service giant Aramark, which agreed April 1 to provide 1.5 cents more per pound of tomatoes and to abide by a supplier code of conduct.
— Timothy Wolfrum, Herald Staff Writer, and The Associated Press, contributed to this report.