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Bon Appetit reaches out to help South Florida tomato growers

<ril 29 2009, Bon Appetit Management Company announced that it has drafted an agreement that demands that South Florida tomato growers improve worker conditions and wages.

In recent years, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has asked fast food restaurants such as Burger King, McDonalds, Subway and Yum Brands to increase worker wages by one penny per pound. Although such an increase may appear slim, this would have led to a 74% wage increase in the South Florida tomato industry. While each company agreed to the increases, it has become apparent that many workers have not received the money they earned. In 2007, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a trade association that claims to represent more than 90 percent of the state’s tomato industry, forbade its members from passing the increase onto workers. The CIW estimates that about $1.5 million has been withheld from the laborers.

This is not the only problem in the industry. Over the past twelve years, over 1000 cases of slavery have been reported, culminating in the most recent conviction of six growers for “enslaving and brutalizing migrant workers.” In what Chief Assistant US Attorney Doug Malloy referred to as “slavery, plain and simple,” the growers forced more than a dozen migrant workers to work by chaining, beating and imprisoning them. One of these men, Mariano Lucas, was, according to the Bon Appetit website, “forced to work without pay and was regularly beaten and chained inside a box truck at night by a family of farm bosses who held him and a dozen other workers captive.”

In a recent e-mail to Bon Appetit employees, Vice President of Bon Appetit Maisie Greenawalt described the conditions under which many farm laborers are forced to work. She wrote, “We saw trailers that are home to upwards of 10 people that are charged with astronomical rents (up to $2000 per month), we heard stories of workers being hit and threatened in the fields, and we saw how hard the work of picking tomatoes truly is.”

Until the CIW wrote a letter to Bon Appetit, the company was unaware that many of the tomatoes it serves in more than 400 university and corporate cafes across the country came from Florida. Bon Appetit was willing to agree to pay workers the extra penny. However, it was not satisfied with just paying the extra money: it wanted to ensure that this money reached the workers for whom it was meant. Consequently, Bon Appetit has decided to boycott tomatoes grown in South Florida until growers agree to higher wages and better working conditions for the laborers.

Fedele Bauccio, CEO of Bon Appetit, explained his decision, saying, “When I met with workers in the fields and saw first-hand how difficult their lives are, I know that I could not, in good conscience, contribute to such a system.”

According to Bon Appetit’s new code, growers must pay the money they owe to farm laborers immediately, suppliers must negotiate and pay a fair minimum wage, and growers must use a time clock system in order to prevent the growers from altering time cards. The wage negotatied by the suppliers would have to take into account the harsh working conditions of farm labor.

One member of the Bon Appetit staff, Peggy Austin, feels particularly compelled by the stories of the migrant workers. She grew up in Florida and saw the migrant workers everyday on her way to work. “I would get behind the same bus every morning at five in the morning. And it’s packed full of immigrants…When I got off work, come home eight o’clock at night, I’d get behind the same bus, the same people,” she said in an interview. “They need to pay the people more…I know the huts, I’ve seen them. I would pass by the fields everyday. And there’s fifteen to twenty people living in them. Half of them don’t have running water. It’s sad for people to have to live in these conditions. They need to have better conditions for the immigrants.”

When in season, Bon Appetit tries to buy at least 20% of its produce from local farmers. However, during the winter, this is not always a feasible option. If Florida tomato growers do not agree to the terms set forth by Bon Appetit, the company is prepared to stop serving tomatoes in its cafeterias.

In a recent press release, Bauccio stated, “If no [grower] steps up, then I have to respond to my customers and not serve tomatoes. We’ll tell them, ‘The reason you’re not getting tomatoes is because of the situation in South Florida.’”

While Bon Appetit purchases almost five million pounds of tomatoes from South Florida per year, this number is dwarfed in comparison to other companies. It is estimated that McDonalds buys about 20 million pounds a year, and Subway buys even more. The CIW worries that these new terms could end up just hurting farm laborers in a time when jobs are scarce. This could cause farmers to lay off workers instead of agreeing to the terms of the agreement.

Gerardo Reyes, a member of the CIW, said of the agreement, “It’s not a final product, and it’s not meant to be. But it is a great first cut at building a relationship between farmworkers and their employers based on a genuine appreciation for the value of farmworkers’ labor.”

One of Bon Appetit’s main goals is sustainability. Bon Appetit believes that the boycott of tomatoes is the next step in that direction. Greenawalt said, “We cannot have a sustainable future without considering the humans in our supply chain.”

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