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Blocked by lawmakers, Florida farmworkers seek help on heat protection from food industry

Farmworkers are asking big buyers, like Wendy’s and Publix, to pledge to purchase only from suppliers who follow a code of conduct designed to protect workers’ rights.
Matias J. Ocner
The Miami Herald
Farmworkers are asking big buyers, like Wendy’s and Publix, to pledge to purchase only from suppliers who follow a code of conduct designed to protect workers’ rights.

Seeking relief from South Florida’s soaring heat, outdoor workers in South Florida appealed to politicians in Miami-Dade and Tallahassee for help.

They got none. A Miami-Dade measure intended to ensure basic protections like water and breaks wound up derailed by construction and agriculture lobbyists. Florida lawmakers are poised to double down on the denial, this week approving a bill to block not just Miami-Dade but any county in the state from drawing up their own health standards for extreme heat.

READ MORE: After record summer, Florida looks set to ban local heat protections for workers

Now, a coalition of farmworkers from South-Dade and Immokalee intend to take their campaign directly to the powerful fast food and grocery industries that buy the produce they harvest. They’re gathering this weekend for the Farmworker Freedom Festival in Palm Beach County to rally support for the effort— an event that includes a plan to place a giant farmworker puppet in front of the mansion owned by the chairman of the board of Wendy’s.

They call the two-story effigy Esperanza.

“Her name is Esperanza, or hope, because we hope for a better world,” said Lupe Gonzalo, a leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. “A world where we arell treated with dignity and respect as human beings.”

It’s not the first time South Florida farmworkers have tried the tactic of pressuring powerful corporations — and they have a track record of success. They have won contracts for workplace improvements with some of the largest tomatoes buyers in the world, from McDonald’s to Walmart.

Their fight to get businesses to agree to what they call “the Fair Food agreement” doesn’t always come easy. In the best-known effort, billed as “Boycott the Bell,” the coalition spent four years working with college students, who are Taco Bell’s biggest market, to remove the fast food outlets from 20 campuses. Even former U.S. President Jimmy Carter voiced his support of the boycott before Taco Bell signed on in 2005.

Since then, the four largest fast-food companies — Burger King, McDonalds, Subway and Yum Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell) have signed onto the Fair Food agreement. So have the three largest food service providers, Compass Group, Aramark and Sodexo. Now, they are focusing on the supermarket industry, including Florida-based Publix and additional fast food chains, including Wendy’s.

Bon Appétit, a company that runs more than 1,000 cafés in colleges and corporations, including Google, signed on to the Fair Food program in 2009. Theresa Chester, the company’s vice president of purchasing, said signing on was a matter of principle.

“Through our purchasing powers and our purchasing orders that go to the program, the issue of workers’ rights is brought to that same level of food safety,” Chester said. “Respect for workers is just as important as the food safety we bring to the table. It brings us peace of mind that our supply chain is free of those typical abuses.”

Auditor interviews Shane D in 2017 and gives him a hotline card.
Fair Food Program
The Miami Herald
Auditor interviews Shane D in 2017 and gives him a hotline card.

Standards beyond OSHA

Critics of such programs call them redundant with expensive red tape — adding costs to businesses that will be passed onto the consumers already struggling with rising food bills They argue that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration already hands out fines for unsafe working conditions, including for violations related to heat.

“We take great pride in training our employees, providing the safest work environment,” Nelson Stabile, president of the Builders Association of South Florida told the Herald in November. “We just want to make sure that we can continue raising awareness without having a situation where it’s overly punitive and there’s duplicative regulatory government in place.”

A spokeswoman for Wendy’s also told the Miami Herald they are not participants in the Fair Food Program because they buy their tomatoes from indoor greenhouse growers — not field workers in South Florida.

“There is no nexus between the program and our supply chain,” Wendy’s wrote in a statement on Tuesday.

But farm workers say federal monitoring of work in the fields is sporadic at best and the industry’s own standards are minimal. The coalition argues that other workers, including ones in greenhouses, also deserve similar health and heat protections.

Under the Fair Food program, the code of conduct that farms have to follow is extensive, covering sexual misconduct and wage theft and other common labor issues. In 2021, the code of conduct was revised to include protections from the rising temperatures — a problem that climate change is only making worse. For 46 sweltering days this summer, Miami sizzled under heat index temperatures that topped 100 degrees every afternoon. That shattered the previous record, set in 2020, of 32 days in a row above 100 degrees.

READ MORE: Activists want Miami-Dade commissioners to back protections for outdoor workers in extreme heat

Under the program, workers are educated on heat stress signs and encouraged to take breaks any time they need to. Between April to November — the hottest months — the rules stiffen. Growers must provide 10-minute breaks every two hours where every single worker has to stop what they are doing. Workers also are required to get electrolyte drinks during those hotter months too. That’s largely what workers were initially seeking in the Miami-Dade ordinance that is now in limbo.

Farm operators have a financial incentive to follow the rules — continued access to the biggest buyers of produce in America, said Laura Safer Espinoza, who directed the Fair Food Standards Council for a decade. The Fair Foods Council is a third-party group that enforces the agreements between the workers, growers and buyers.

“The reason we can protect them from retaliation is because the grower would be suspended from the program and unable to sell,” said Safer Espinoza, who served as a New York State Supreme Court Justice for 20 years. “That kind of market-based enforcement has led to a situation where workers do raise their voices.”

The program includes several layers of oversight. Once a year and sometimes more, investigators perform in-depth audits at the farms and interview at least half the workforce. They check the worker’s time logs, pay slips and housing conditions.

But the audit is only a snapshot in time, Safer Espinoza said. Which is why there’s a need for a 24/7 anonymous tip line that leads directly to Fair Food Program investigators available to talk in English, Spanish and Creole.

Since the program started in 2011, there have been nearly 4,000 hot line complaints with 82% of them resolved by the partnership of the standards council and growers within a month.

“I saw the change happen before my eyes,” said Gonzalo of the Immokalee Workers. “The crew leaders and supervisors that for many years harassed women were fired from the industry. Others who engaged in harassing comments in the field changed the way they treated us as workers and women.”

Farmworkers in a Fair Food Program education session.
Fair Food Program
Farmworkers in a Fair Food Program education session.

For one grower, a 'magical' change

By contrast, since 2020, OSHA has fined five Florida employers after their employees died from heat illness; deaths that the agency said could have been prevented if their employers had followed “established safety practices regarding heat-related hazards.”

And while OSHA is working on a heat protection standard for outdoor workers nationwide, it could be years before the draft rule is introduced.

“Even if OSHA does somewhere down the line ultimately come up with guidelines, what will the enforcement mechanism actually be?” Safer Espinoza said. “And it’s very hard to beat market-based enforcement where everyone is motivated to comply.”

Miguel Rios, who was a regional agricultural enforcement coordinator at the U.S. Department of Labor for 27 years before stepping into a role on the Fair Food Standards Council, said all agencies struggle with solving problems quickly.

“Despite the best efforts of a lot of good people in the agency, there is simply not the resources or bandwidth to do so many things that FFP does,” Rios said.

Jon Esformes, the CEO of the Sunripe Certified Brands tomato fields in Immokalee and Central Florida, said he can’t see and monitor every corner of the field, so having a reporting system that workers feel comfortable using is the main reason he joined forces with the coalition 14 years ago. While the company previously had a similar code, he said he soon realized workers were scared to complain to the boss and the audits and tipline became an important outlet.

“It was a 180-degree transformation in the relationship between the company and the people who do the work,” he said. “For lack of a better word, it was magical.”

A model for heat protection

But hundreds of thousands of other outdoor workers in South Florida, including many working in the nurseries and fields of the Redland, aren’t covered by the program.

Oscar Londoño, the executive director of WeCount, a group that led the stalled grassroots campaign for the first heat protections in Miami-Dade, said the Fair Food Program shows there are avenues other than government legislation to protect workers. Groups of South Miami-Dade outdoor workers will attending the event in Palm Beach County.

“Their model shows us that the industry who have been actively lobbying against Que Calor are acting in bad faith because we know there are already companies that can afford to protect their workers from extreme heat,” Londoño said.

Ashley Miznazi is a climate change reporter for the Miami Herald funded by the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Family Foundation in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

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