Retired New York State Supreme Court Judge Laura Espinoza oversees the Fair Food Program, a 2010 worker-and-grower agreement that sets wages and working conditions for Florida farmworkers. / Sarah Coward/news-press.com
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Source: Fair Food Standards Council
Some weeks, it’s a couple of extra bucks in his paycheck. Others, it’s upward of $100.
But apart from the income bump, what Chepe “Guero” Orozco notices is that his bosses now make eye contact with him.
“Face to face, direct, with some respect, instead of as a rancher to his little animals,” Orozco says, on his way into the Maxx Foods supermarket on Palm Beach Boulevard in east Fort Myers to pick up a new pair of socks.
He pauses, then says, “That may be because they know there’s vigilance now — eyes — the eyes of the coalition,” he says, pointing at one of his own startling baby blues.
Actually, the eyes don’t belong to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the grass-roots nonprofit that’s fought for years to make Orozco’s life — and the lives of his 30,000 or so tomato harvester colleagues — better.
Instead, they’re in the seven heads that make up the newly formed Fair Food Standards Council, the independent nonprofit in charge of making sure those differences Orozco has noticed will last.
The 26-year-old tomato picker’s confusion is understandable.
After all, it was the coalition that, after a 15-year impasse, signed an unprecedented pact with the state’s largest tomato growers group in 2010. The goal: to fundamentally change the nature of the state’s $402 million tomato industry, shadowed for decades by low wages and labor abuses, including high-profile slavery cases.
The Fair Food agreement gives workers a penny-per-pound raise that comes not from growers, but from the growers’ customers: corporate tomato buyers. Those include the world’s major fast-food companies, institutional food services and specialty grocers Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, who report collectively paying out $7 million in premiums this season.
The program also improves working conditions for the people who pick tomatoes in Florida, where much of the nation’s fresh tomato crop grows. Those harvesters have long been excluded from workplace rights others take for granted because of New Deal-era laws that shut out farmworkers and servants. The Fair Food Program seeks to finally level things out. It calls for a cooperative complaint resolution system, a health and safety program, and worker-to-worker education in addition to the raise, which could mean an increase from about $10,000 to about $17,000 a year.
Though it was the coalition that forged and fought for the agreement, an outside group enforces it: the Fair Food Standards Council that opened in November with its own board, its own staff and its own space — 110 miles northwest of Immokalee in Sarasota.
“Strategically, it’s a central location in terms of where tomatoes are grown,” explained Laura Safer Espinoza, the 58-year-old former New York State Supreme Court Justice who gave up a Fort Myers retirement to become the council’s director for $80,000 a year.
Also strategic was the coalition’s decision to not become the program’s eyes, ears and teeth.
“There’s an independent organization to stand in its stead,” Espinoza said. “(The coalition) chose to distance themselves from the monitoring so they could focus on the campaign and worker education.”
This arrangement wasn’t foisted on the growers, said Jon Esformes, operating partner of Palmetto-based Pacific Tomato Growers, the first Florida grower to sign on. Since then, 31 others have joined — more than 90 percent of those in the state.
“Doing it this way made perfect sense to us. It’s no different than having an outside audit of our food safety. We encourage that because it helps us improve our accountability — in this case, our social accountability,” Esformes said. “It was a participatory process. (The coalition) asked us what we thought, and we think it’s terrific.”
The council is funded with about $900,000 in multiyear grants (the Kresge and Kellogg foundations were major contributors) for which it will reapply when they run out.
Important to note, Espinoza said, is that none of its budget comes from Fair Food premium payments.
“Those funds come from corporate buyers and are absolutely never touched by anyone outside of the supply chain of the buyers,” Espinoza said. “That money goes from the buyers to the growers to the workers.”
Since November, an accountant, five auditors and Espinoza, who’s looking to make three more hires soon, have overseen the distribution of the Fair Food payments. Plus, they’ve worked to remake an entire workplace culture, a daunting task requiring varying measures of diplomacy, reeducation and firmness. With a weary chuckle, Espinoza said, “It would be a mistake to believe that the signing of the agreements solved all the underlying problems that have existed too long in agriculture — that it was the end of all that.”
But it was a beginning.
“Now, when problems arise, they have a much better chance of becoming known and dealt with,” Espinoza says.
The council’s approach includes auditing and a confidential complaint line, so if something surfaces, there’s a formal, agreed-upon way to resolve it.
That’s backed up by the power of the marketplace, she said. Those who’ve signed the agreement want it to mean something.
“They want to be assured that they can say with a high degree of certainty that the tomatoes they’re selling and buying were grown and harvested under fair working conditions ... it’s a market advantage with their consuming public, who are increasingly putting a value on that,” Espinoza said.
The council’s just 8 months old, with only one season under its belt, and changing long-held practices takes time — not to mention the will to do it, Espinoza said.
Acknowledging problems may not be fun, but it’s a healthy process, Esformes said.
“No one likes to hear what they’re doing wrong, and we all need to hear that,” he said. “It may be a little uncomfortable if they say, ‘Gee, you guys aren’t doing this the right way,’ but at the end of the day we’re glad to have had that.”
Heartening as that attitude is, Espinoza said, “the race has not been won — not by a long shot.
“While there are some growers who are sincerely on board, there are others who say, ‘Oh, you mean I really need to buy a time clock? I have to put up a shade tent? Give them water with ice in it? Actually put them on my payroll?”
When auditors run into growers like that, they’re afforded the opportunity to negotiate a solution with the council, she said
“This is not a game of ‘Gotcha!’ Espinoza said. “We want them to have the chance to take corrective action so they can stay in the program.”
But ultimately, there has to be a limit to the gentle forbearance, Espinoza said.
“To start with, everyone agreed the fair thing to do was take this season to find out what was out there, what was needed, and give everyone a chance to comply,” she said.
Growers are given the offseason months to work out the agreed-to improvement strategy, Espinoza saids.
“But when next season rolls around, the action required by the improvement plan will be verified in the field,” she said. “Then, if they haven’t addressed their issues, it won’t be wait-and-see anymore. We’ll have no choice but to honor our commitment to the corporate buyers.”
Tim Durham, an FGCU instructor who lectures on agriculture, believes it’s not far-fetched to expect that within a few years, what’s happening in the tomato industry will be picked up by others.
“It’s certainly heartening to see what’s been done, even in the span of a scant year,” Durham said. “There’s been a continual downward trend in farmworker wages. Ideally businesses would take corporate responsibility. (They) need to normalize pay for farmworkers. I’d like to see this duplicated across the board.
“Water? Shade cloth?” Durham asks. “Those are translatable to other sectors, and it’s not that onerous.”
Pacific’s Esformes agrees.
“It’s shown us what can we do better,” he said. “That’s a big deal for us.”
The rewards aren’t just internal.
“We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of support from our customers as a result of this relationship,” he says. “And we’ve also seen a growth in our customer base as a result.”