Immokalee farmworkers and their allies yesterday began a 14-day, 200-mile trek across Florida to protest low wages and poor working conditions.
According to Naples News, about 150 people took to the streets of Fort Myers, some holding signs, a few carrying a large papier-mâché farmworker who had the words "new day" in his basket.
The protest was the official start of the March for Rights, Respect, Fair Food, which will culminate in Lakeland March 17. Lakeland is the corporate headquarters of supermarket giant Publix and a frequent target of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Both the coalition and Publix have been embroiled in a long battle, with the coalition blaming the supermarket chain for low wages and imploring the giant to pay up.
The coalition claims if Publix paid "one penny a pound" more for its tomatoes, that gesture could make the difference between current conditions and one in which approximately 30,000 workers (both migrant and U.S. citizens) would have access to bathrooms, shade from the sun, and protection from chemicals in the field.
Publix, on the other hand, insists those issues are considered a labor dispute between the workers and their employers.
Short Order called Publix media relations and was advised to look at the company's 2012 "Put It in the Price" statement in which Publix states, "We seek to do business with suppliers who can
provide quality products to our customers and operate their businesses in order to provide an enviable workplace for their employees." So why doesn't Publix just pay that extra penny? Well, it will -- just not directly to the workers (which it really can't).
Instead, Publix says it is "more than willing to pay a penny more per pound -- or whatever the market price of tomatoes will be - in order to provide product to [its] customers." Publix, however, doesn't want to be part of a labor dispute between employee and employer, further saying it works with thousands of suppliers and "could literally be drawn into a
potential dispute between an employer and their employee(s) at any time."
In the past, the coalition has protested Taco Bell and McDonald's. Both firms agreed to demand better treatment for farmworkers from their suppliers.
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While it might not be the direct responsibility of a large chain to get involved with a supplier's labor disputers with its employees, there is some moral responsibility. A company such as
Publix, which prides itself on making Forbes' "Best Places to Work" list, should be willing to leverage its enormous purchasing power to make life easier for the people who pick the fruits and vegetables that land on its shelves -- and our table.