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Florida group presses supermarket chains, others to protect farmworkers from heat

An agriculture worker protests against Florida's new anti-immigration law, SB 1718 on May 28, 2023.
Verónica Zaragovia / WLRN
An agriculture worker protests against Florida's new anti-immigration law, SB 1718 on May 28, 2023.

As high temperatures continue to scorch Florida, a major Florida-based farmworkers group is imploring major retailers, like Publix, to protect workers from the record-breaking heat wave.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is pushing its Fair Food Program, which encourages retailers to use their clout with farmers and growers to ensure better working conditions and wages for farmworkers.

Since 2011, farms that participate in the program have spread across 10 states, including Florida, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Colorado, and countries including Chile, South Africa and Mexico. Fourteen companies, including Walmart, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and McDonald’s, have agreed to buy produce from farms that have signed up for the program.

The idea to pressure retailers to use their clout with growers to improve pay and conditions for Florida tomato pickers took off in the early 2000s when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers led a four-year, nationwide boycott of Taco Bell. The boycott ended in 2005 when the company agreed to pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes purchased from Florida growers in order to raise farmworkers’ wages.

The Fair Food Program followed several years later in an agreement with Florida tomato growers, and it now includes more than a dozen participating corporations. Leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Fair Food Program have been recognized with a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award and presidential award presented by then-Secretary of State John Kerry.

READ MORE: Farmworkers marched through Palm Beach, urging Wendy's chairman to end 'modern-day slavery' on farms

The program is monitored by a team of independent, trained human rights investigators with the Fair Food Standards Council.

Lupe Gonzalo, an organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, used to work in the town's tomato fields, not far from Naples.

She told WLRN that large holdouts, like Publix, should consider the earnings potential from joining this program, if not the human rights component.

“Consumers have come to our protest marches and awareness events because they have the weight to move these corporations and join our movement,” Gonzalo said. “Unfortunately, because of climate change, we don’t see these heat waves lessening. So let’s think about how to protect workers outdoors as they’re dealing with this. There’s a solution - the Fair Food Program, so that workers don’t put their lives in danger.”

She said customers may want to spend on fruits and vegetables that they know are grown in proper working conditions.

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, in 2021, Valencia oranges and tomatoes were among the state's most lucrative crops, producing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Publix officials did not immediately respond to WLRN for comment.

The push to protect farmworkers comes at a time when the Associated Press reports that a historic heat wave across vast parts of the U.S. is shining a spotlight on one of the harshest, yet least-addressed effects of U.S. climate change: the rising deaths and injuries of people who work in extreme heat, whether inside warehouses and kitchens or outside under the blazing sun. Many of them are migrants in low-wage jobs.

The AP reported that there is no federal heat standard in the U.S. despite an ongoing push from President Joe Biden's administration to establish one. Most of the hottest U.S. states currently have no heat-specific standards either. Instead, workers in many states who are exposed to extreme heat are ostensibly protected by what is known as the “general duty clause,” which requires employers to mitigate hazards that could cause serious injury or death.

This summer, the U.S., along with other northern hemisphere countries, witnessed record temperatures. July and August were the hottest months in recorded history by scientists and major U.S. and international climate and weather services ever recorded.

Activists are hoping Miami-Dade County approves Florida's first heat protection law.

In July, Miami-Dade County Commissioners unanimously passed the first reading of the "Qué Calor" ordinance that will need a second hearing and vote. It would include many protections recommended by the Fair Food Program.

The county commission action followed a series of stories published in July by the Miami Herald, "Sizzling South Florida," that documented the deadly consequences of extreme heat caused by climate change on those working outdoors and the overall South Florida economy.

WeCount!, a Homestead-based nonprofit organization advocating for agricultural, domestic, and construction workers, pushed for the county to take up the measure. It estimates more than 327,000 people in Miami-Dade work outdoors.

The organization is holding a rally at 11 a.m. Monday at the Government Center in Miami before the county's 12 p.m. public hearing of the Community Health Committee to discuss the ordinance.

Verónica Zaragovia was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up in South Florida. She’s been a lifelong WLRN listener and is proud to cover health care, as well as Surfside and Miami Beach politics for the station. Contact Verónica at vzaragovia@wlrnnews.org
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