As ethical tomatoes become more common, a new curriculum teaches migrant workers about minimum wage, proper conditions, and how not to be exploited
Sitting in a room at a packing plant near Immokalee in southwest Florida with about 50 migrant laborers, I learned that I had a right to earn a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and could take regular breaks in a shady area provided by the farm—including a lunch break. I was told exactly what constituted a full bucket of tomatoes when I was working on a "piece," or per-bucket basis. For some of my work, I would get an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes I picked—which amounted to a 50-percent raise. I was informed that sexual harassment would not be tolerated. And finally I received a card with the number of a 24-hour confidential help line. "If you see a problem, talk to someone—your friends, your boss, us, anyone, just say something," said Lucas Benitez, one of the members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a grassroots labor rights group that was responsible for the lesson.
Until this year none of my classmates, many of whom were veteran tomato workers, had ever attended a session like this one, where their fellow workers outlined their new rights and responsibilities under the CIW's Fair Food Code of Conduct as employees of Pacific Tomato Growers, a major corporation that markets its products under the brand names Sunripe and Suncoast.