Some of America’s worst-paid and least-protected workers have scored agreements with two of the nation’s largest tomato growers after a 15 year labor dispute. They even got a long-overdue apology.

“In a free society, few are guilty, but all are responsible,” explained Jon Esformes, operating partner of Pacific Tomato Growers, the first to ink a deal with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. “The transgressions that took place are totally unacceptable today and they were totally unacceptable yesterday.”

The landmark social responsibility agreements between the coalition and Pacific, as well as Six L’s Packing Co., mark the dawning of a new day for the group, which represents Florida farmworkers who pick tomatoes. The coalition has fought to raise abysmally low pay and horrific conditions in the fields, in part by drawing public attention to the conditions under which American food is produced.

Florida’s $400 million tomato industry supplies the vast majority of the nation’s tomatoes between October and June.

The coalition’s agreements with retailers and growers will boost tomato pickers’ pay by one cent per pound. That one penny difference will mean that in exchange for their backbreaking stoop labor, these farmworkers could see their meager pay climb from $10,000 to $17,000 per year, a wage that will remain well below the poverty line for a family of four. Ever since the New Deal, farmworkers have been legally excluded from common workplace protections such as overtime pay and collective bargaining, which makes these victories remarkable.

In Florida alone, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice has successfully prosecuted seven farm slavery operations since 1997 involving well over 1,000 captive workers. As a result, more than a dozen farm labor supervisors have served time in federal prison.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers began organizing to confront these abuses in the early 1990s. They first worked out of a borrowed room at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in the small Southwest Florida town of Immokalee. The group gathered strength as it staged work stoppages, marches, and hunger strikes to draw attention to rapidly declining wages and a sometimes violent work climate.

The large tomato growers initially proved indifferent, so the workers sought public support. Consumers across the country were often shocked to learn about the exploitation tainting their hamburgers and salads.

Since its launch in 2001, the Immokalee workers’ Campaign for Fair Food has scored agreements with nine leading food retailers, including McDonald’s and Whole Foods. These deals require those companies to demand more humane labor standards from their Florida tomato suppliers, to pay a penny more per pound for more fairly produced tomatoes, and to shift their purchases to growers who meet those higher standards.

Today, this strategy is finally bearing fruit. Both corporate buyers and large growers are embracing the campaign. For workers, this means better pay, a grievance procedure, and on-the-job health, safety, and education.

The coalition has created a new model for farmworker justice, one that leverages the economic power of the country’s major food retailers to end farm labor exploitation. With every new buyer that joins the Campaign for Fair Food, farmworkers get a small raise and the purchasing power behind the call for more humane standards grows. That’s why it’s so important that consumers continue to demand that the supermarkets where they shop support the Campaign for Fair Food.

Pacific Tomato Growers, Six L’s Packing Co., and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, are embarking together on a road toward real social responsibility. And if that road leads us where the Coalition of Immokalee Workers thinks it will, it may prove to be a model for generations of farmworkers–and the owners of large farms–in the coming years.

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Sean Sellers

Sean Sellers is a food and society fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

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