Oct 16, 2009
Some Tomato Pickers get an Extra Penny Per Pound

There has been a breakthrough – although some call it a breakdown – that will put more money into the pockets of workers who pick tomatoes in the southeastern United States.

Two things happened in early September.

First, the fast-food company Chipotle Mexican Grill agreed to pay an extra penny a pound for tomatoes; the penny is to go to the workers who pick the tomatoes the restaurant uses in its Mexican-style food. Chipotle joins Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King and Whole Foods, which have made similar agreements since the first was made with Taco Bell in 2005.

Second, one of the four large farms that grows and packs these tomatoes, East Coast Growers and Packers, Mulberry, Fla., agreed to make sure that money moves from Chipotle back to its workers. It is the first major shipper to do that. And the company plans to extend that service to the other companies that have made agreements with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

For the most part, the money ¬– by one estimate, about $2 million ¬– has been “stagnant,” accumulating in escrow accounts.

East Coast Growers and Packers is a year-round supplier of tomatoes, producing 4,000 acres in Virginia during the summer and 7,000 acres in Florida during the winter.

“The agreement between Chipotle and East Coast Farms comes following months of discussion between Chipotle and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based organization that has led a campaign to improve wages and working conditions for Florida farm workers,” according to a Sept. 9 press release from Chipotle. “Similar agreements between other large tomato buyers … and the CIW have been blocked by a Florida tomato industry cooperative. Under most of those agreements, money earmarked for farm workers is accumulating in escrow accounts rather than reaching the farm workers for whom it is intended. By working directly with East Coast Farms, Chipotle will be able to pass the additional wages directly to the workers.”

Under the agreement with East Coast Growers and Packers, farm workers who pick tomatoes that go to Chipotle will see their pay go from 50 cents, which East Coast currently pays workers to pick a 32-pound bucket, to 82 cents.

In an interview with VGN, Batista Madonia Jr., vice president and sales manager of East Coast Growers, acknowledged that his family owned business had “broken ranks” with the rest of the Florida tomato industry, which has maintained it could not legally pass the money back. East Coast has resigned its membership in the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.

Madonia said the company has good records and knows who picks what tomatoes and where they go, so getting the money to the pickers in not a large problem.

“We have decided to take some steps to help our workers benefit,” he said.

Madonia said he was involved in the long discussions between CIW and Chipotle that led to the agreement.

“East Coast Farms, a leader in the industry, demonstrated a willingness to work with Chipotle to do what is right for their workers from the beginning,” according to Steve Ells, founder and CEO of Chipotle.

Chipotle, founded in 1992, is based in Denver and has about 900 restaurants.

The Chipotle press release quoted Madonia as saying, “When their representatives came to us to negotiate this agreement, we agreed that it was the right thing to do. With this framework in place, we hope to work with other companies that are looking to make similar improvements to wages and working conditions for Florida farm workers.”

According to Rosemary Madonia, Batista’s sister and vice president and comptroller of East Coast, the company hires workers both to pick tomatoes and to do other production and packing tasks. The pickers are paid piecework, the others are paid hourly.

How the 64 percent wage increase for pickers may affect wages for hourly workers is an unanswered question.

Making a thumbprint

The timing of the agreement’s announcement was coincidental with another event that put the spotlight on the family that owns East Coast Growers.

Jody McClement, an employee for Syngenta Seed Care, which provides coatings for tomato seeds, saw the housing and other amenities East Coast was providing for its workers in Florida and thought they were “a model for the industry.”

She asked her company to do something special to recognize the Madonia family for what it was doing. On Sept. 2 ¬ – a week before the family signed on with Chipotle – Syngenta announced it would present its “inaugural” Thumbprint Award to the Madonias and host an “Act of Kindness Day” Sept. 10.

That event took place at housing located near the Madonia packing facility in Tasley, Va., where 400 of their employees live during the summer tomato season. The people who were specifically recognized were Batista Madonia Sr. and his wife Evelyn, the owners who started the company in 1958 and still are the top management today.

The Madonias share some bonds with their workers that may be unusual in the industry. They are Catholic and they know what migration is about.

Batista and Evelyn started their business in Erie, Pa., packing and shipping locally grown tomatoes. Evelyn invented the brand name, King’s Choice, which is still used. But since the growing season in Pennsylvania was summer only, they began buying Florida tomatoes to fill the marketing year. That was the start of the Madonia family’s “migrant life,” one they compared to the lives of their workers, many of whom shuttle back and forth between Virginia and Florida now.

The Madonias settled in Florida in 1980, but before that Evelyn home-schooled her four children in Florida during the winter season. Three of the children are in the business now, Batista Jr., Rosemary and Stephen, who manages all growing operations.

The elder Madonias were featured in the Florida Catholic newspaper a year ago, at which time they were recognized for their efforts to improve the lives of their workers. At that time, they had just purchased the 30-acre site that was formerly the Spurgeon Bible College in Mulberry, Fla. They were renovating its dormitories for housing for 250 farm worker families and planning to use other space for day care, a chapel, meeting rooms, a medical clinic and dentist care office.

In a follow-up story in Florida Catholic this September, Madonia Jr. was quoted as saying, “We lived the life they live, having to move from place to place, starting school late or without my parents – it’s not a favorite memory, but it gave me insight on life today. We’ve done well, and we’re sharing that.”

In the article, the Madonias spoke of how their Catholic faith influenced their attitudes and actions.

John Nardacci, a sales representative for Syngenta Seed Care and its FarMore seed treatments, was one of eight Syngenta employees who, on Act of Kindness Day, planted shrubs, built new steps on houses, power-washed some houses and erected a swing set near the Madonia-owned summer housing. About 300 farm workers, employees of East Coast, turned out to see the Madonias receive the Thumbprint Award and sit down for dinner.

It was a great day, Nardacci said. Everyone wanted to leave their thumbprint, their mark on the community.

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