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It Began with a Tomato: Engagement Lessons from Florida's Tomato Land

What began as the quest for a fresh, juicy, flavorful tomato culminated in a landmark labor rights agreement which is transforming the lives of agricultural workers in the heart of Florida's tomato land.  Along the way we can learn lessons in stakeholder engagement.

I had the opportunity to speak privately with Cheryl Queen, VP of Corporate Communications for Compass Group North America, to learn the details of this story which she shared recently at the Corporate Responsibility magazine’s Commit!Forum 2011: Good Business Makes the Difference in New York City.

For a bit of background, you should know that Compass Group is the world's leading food service provider to college campuses, public schools, business cafeterias and events such as the US Open. Throughout the US and Canada, Compass Group North America has more than 175,000 associates in 48 states, ten provinces, and two territories.  Their parent company, UK-based Compass Group PLC operates in over 50 countries with 428,000 associates worldwide. So when Compass Group buys tomatoes, they buy a LOT of tomatoes - 8 million pounds each year in North America alone.  Hold that thought.

Compass Group's actions have led to improved working conditions for agriculture workers in Immokalee, Florida, the source of almost all the winter tomatoes grown in the United States. These tomato workers “have gone from enduring slavery, beatings, wage theft (and sub-minimum wage pay) and 12-hour days in the blazing heat with no shade, to a victory that, that, while not quite complete, is possibly the most successful labor action in the United States in 20 years,” in the words of New York Times Magazine food columnist Mark Pittman.

It’s an intriguing tale which has been ably told by Jeff Gore, staff writer for the Orlando Weekly.  But I asked Queen to talk about the process and corporate culture which led to this remarkable action.  There are several underlying principles which I think can serve as a template for other companies to follow. As Queen said noted, many of these actions “seem so reasonable and logical.”

Acting consistently with their brand and core values.  Taking a stand on labor practices is consistent with the brand and core values of Compass Food North America and its parent company Compass Group PLC.  Both have taken leadership stances on a number of sustainable agriculture practices such as: supporting local family farmers and Fair Trade; reducing the use of antibiotics in chicken, turkey and pork; sustainable sustainable seafood purchasing policies; 100 percent use of cage-free shell eggs, and the elimination of artificial rBGH from milk and yogurt products.

A willingness to engage.  When representatives from the Student/Farmworker Alliance  contacted Compass Group about the situation in Immokalee, Queen and a human resources executive immediately went to see the conditions in Immokalee first hand.

Striving to understand. Following a tour of the fields and living conditions at Immokalee, Compass Group sat down at table with representatives from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

“The CIW representatives talked about their situation, conditions and their hopes for Compass Group's support,” Queen told me.  “Then we shared information about our work with other NGOs.”

Setting clear expectations. When engaging with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Compass Group was very clear about its expectations.

“We told the CIW representatives that we will listen, consider their concerns and explore the situation to determine if it makes sense for use to act.  Then, if we commit to work with them on this issue, then it has to be a partnership,” explained Queen.

Demanding tangible results. In the situation with wage for tomatoes harvesters in Immokalee,  “fast food companies who supported the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food had agreed to pay a penny per pound for tomatoes, but no money was reaching the farm workers,” explained Queen.   “It was stuck in an escrow account because the growers weren’t passing on the penny per pound increase to the workers.”  Compass Group felt that was all but worthless.  They  refused to sign the agreement unless the money would to the harvesters.  So, they found that Florida Tomatoes Growers Exchange was willing to work with Compass Group and provide the 8 million pounds of tomatoes the food service company uses each year.

Establishing new partnerships.  Compass Group invited the growers and CIW representatives to a meeting at their headquarters in Charlotte.  “That was the first time CIW had sat at the same table as one of the growers,” notes Queen.

Articulating the agreement. In September 2009, the CIW and Compass Group agreed upon a Code of Conduct designed to improve working conditions and give harvesters opportunity to advance beyond the field. In part, the agreement stipulated that:

  • Workers will receive an immediate raise based on the penny-per-pound, with the ultimate goal of a guaranteed minimum fair wage

  • Workers will be paid for every hour worked, with a system of clocking in/out to accurately record working hours

  • Workers will have the ability to voice their concerns over safety and working conditions, and report Code violations, without fear of retribution

  • Suppliers will allow education of workers as to their rights on company time and within the worksite by the CIW

  • Suppliers will permit third party auditing for full transparency.

The results of this agreement are still rippling through the agriculture industry. Nine major food industry leaders – including Subway, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Trader Joe’s competitor Whole Foods – have already signed Fair Food agreements with the CIW.

The Fair Food agreements include a penny-per-pound piece rate wage increase for tomato pickers, a strict code of conduct, a cooperative complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process. In November 2010, the CIW and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange signed an agreement to extend these principles to over 90% of Florida’s tomato fields in a phased-in process over two seasons.

Not a bad outcome from the craving for a fresh-tasting tomato. Well, for 8 million pounds of tomatoes.



Cindy Mehallow

Cindy Mehallow is principal of CRM Communications, a woman-owned sustainability communications consulting practice specializing in corporate social responsibility reporting and stakeholder communications. GRI-Certified in sustainability reporting, Cindy has produced award-winning sustainability reports for Fortune 500 clients in a variety of industries.

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