Oct. 02--Hours south of Athens, half of all tomatoes grown in the U.S. are harvested in Floridian fields. For one afternoon, the workers who pick those tomatoes, mostly immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti, came to Athens to raise awareness about their livelihoods.
Standing on the stage of the University of Georgia Chapel, Spanish-speaking farm workers demonstrated the back-breaking tomato picking process and, through an interpreter, listed the different ways their employers, often referred to as growers, exploit their labor. UGA students attempted to lift heavy buckets weighted to mimic a full tomato haul.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker-led union based in South Florida representing agricultural workers, stopped in Athens on Tuesday as part of its campaign against Publix grocery stores' 4-year-long refusal to participate in a wage-increasing program that 11 other corporations have already signed onto, explained farm worker and coalition member Oscar Otzoy.
"For four years, Publix has refused to even have a dialogue with the coalition," Otzoy said through an interpreter.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is asking that Publix join the Fair Food Program, which Taco Bell and other major produce buyers have already joined. Through the program, buyers pay 1 cent more per pound of tomatoes, an amount that's paid to workers through weekly bonuses. Workers are currently paid 50 cents per pound for tomatoes, according to Otzoy. He called them sub-poverty wages.
A statement posted on Publix's media page said the company views the farm labor situation as simply a labor dispute between worker and employer. Publix buys from multiple suppliers, according to the statement, and it's not the company's place to step into labor relations among its suppliers. Publix is willing to pay an extra penny, according to the statement, but it shouldn't come from Publix, but instead be included in the price the grower asks for its produce. Put it in the price, the statement reiterates.
"We farm workers know it's not a labor dispute," Otzoy said.
Publix refusal, he said, makes no sense in light of many other corporations joining the Fair Food Program. McDonald's, Burger King, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Subway are among the major buyers signed onto the Fair Food Program.
Still, Publix, as the largest grocery chain in Florida, represents a centerpiece of their penny-per-pound campaign.
"Their refusal represents a threat to our program," Otzoy said.
With a number of large buyers on board with the fair food program, Otzoy said they've seen concrete change in the fields. Workers report an additional $50 to $100 dollars a week in bonuses through the Fair Food Program, he said.
"The penny has been an economic relief for our community," he said.
Though attendance at their Chapel presentation was sparse, Otzoy, the coalition and groups from UGA took the campaign to the shopping center anchored by Publix off Barnett Shoals Road Tuesday night.
Florida and Georgia share a migrant agricultural workforce, Otzoy said, which is just one reason why people in Athens should care about the coalition's campaign against Publix. And he said Athens consumers think about where their produce comes from.
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