U.S.: Del Monte deal shows fair food is good business, says Reyes
A subsidiary of Del Monte Fresh Produce (NYSE: FDP) recently signed up to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) fair food program, but what does that actually mean? CIW staff member Gerardo Reyes explains a system that is protecting Florida tomato workers' rights like never before, and which may expand into new crops and states.
Prior to the 2010 formation of the program, Reyes says there were discrepancies between the law and its application for workers in the Florida tomato industry. In extreme cases he cites cases of sexual abuse and death threats at gunpoint, while more common were instances of incomplete payments or firings as a result of complaints.
The Mexican native says the more violent acts tended to be undertaken by subcontractors, meaning tomato companies themselves could could easily say they didn't know what was going on.
"Under these [fair food] agreements, it is a requirement that every worker is contracted directly by every farm participating in the program, which makes the company responsible in any case of abuse that happens to the worker, including slavery," Reyes tells www.freshfruitportal.com, highlighting the majority of the state's tomato industry have signed on, via the Florida Tomato Growers' Exchange.
"If there is a case of slavery, the company will be cut automatically, as there is a zero tolerance policy. They will be cut off from any of those 12 buyers, whether it be McDonald’s, Burger King, Wal-Mart or others."
This is just one measure contained in a far-reaching set of rules outlined by CIW, distributed to workers in pamphlets so they know their rights and how to solve problems through the right channels.
"Among these rights, there is the right to have a machine that clocks working hours. Workers in general have the right to receive the minimum wage when they are working under contract if it doesn't go well," he says.
"For example, for a bucket of 32 pounds of tomatoes they get paid 50 cents. Before if the season was bad or it was the third harvest and there weren’t enough tomatoes, you could spend 10 hours working and the companies didn't pay more than US$30-40, adjusting the accounts to reflect that the worker had only been there for four or five hours.
"You strike your card with the time of entry and exit, and from that you can only discount the lunch break. Under this, you are automatically protected under the program so that the minimum salary is paid."
He says another important aspect is the right to complaint without retaliation.
"Before, if a worker complained they were fired. Now, there is a complaint system established which starts with education," he says.
"We conduct meetings, under the shade which the company has to provide, as under the agreement there has to be shade, informing workers about protections against pesticide exposure, situations of extreme heat, and that there must be bathrooms nearby, as well as clean and fresh water.
"With the right to complain without retaliation, we have received more than 450 complaints...for the first time, workers are seeing that when they complain, there is a solution. They can call us, they can call a 1800 number, or call the company directly – there are three channels."
Reyes says the program currently runs throughout the Florida tomato season from October to May, and directly impacts 30,000 workers in the state.
"They are the eyes and voices of the system – they see what happens in the fields and they activate the complaint solution mechanisms through their reporting with us, ciruclating information through different communication channels.
"With all of that, a new culture of respect at work is being created, and this is something that did not exist before."
He adds an additional benefit comes from buyers committing to pay a bonus for workers based on volume, which started as a penny per pound and has since risen to 1.5 cents per pound.
"This is distributed to workers, and in total this has amounted to US$11 million which have been distributed within these 30,000 people since the program started, firstly with a few companies, and later in the following season it extended to almost the whole industry through the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange."
He adds that Wal-Mart is contemplating the incorporation of new Florida horticultural crops in its agreement with CIW, with strawberries as the most likely contender.
"Protections will extend to tomatoes in other states too," Reyes says.
He says the CIW is "very content" that Del Monte has joined the fair food program.
"The investment that Del Monte is bringing to the tomato industry is something that we welcome because it opens many working positions, and to look at it more deeply, it shows that companies that weren’t previously in this part of the U.S. or part of this particular industry, are betting on this system," Reyes says.
"They're showing their confidence that there is a future of the tomato industry in the state. They’re bringing thousands of new jobs to the state, injecting much energy into the Florida economy.
"There is clear evidence that the fair food program is not just something good for the workers, but it is good business in itself."
In a release, Del Monte's vice president of North American operations, Paul Rice, said the move shows its commitment improve the lives of workers in Florida fields and to the Florida tomato industry as a whole.
"We are pleased to join the Fair Food Program and continue our commitment to strong ethical sourcing standards which ensures that the products we sell are produced in a way that provides fair treatment for the workers in our supply chain," Rice said in a release.