Stop & Shop protest march urges more pay for tomato farmers

By Stewart Bishop
Globe Correspondent / February 28, 2011

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Hundreds of demonstrators marched from Copley Square to a Brigham Circle Stop & Shop yesterday, calling on the supermarket chain to improve wages and working conditions for farm workers who labor in Florida’s vast tomato fields.

About 60 farm workers affiliated with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, based in Immokalee, Fla., were joined by local religious groups, labor organizations, and other supporters, in an effort to pressure Stop & Shop into paying one cent more to farm workers for every pound of tomatoes harvested.

In Copley Square, Romeo Ramirez, a 30-year-old farm worker and organizer with the coalition, said he was fighting to improve the workers’ conditions and pay, which he argued is below minimum wage.

“It’s really a very small amount that workers are asking corporations to pay,’’ he said.

Ramirez said for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked, a farm worker is paid between 45 and 50 cents.

“In order to make minimum wage for a typical 10-hour day you would have to fill a bucket about every four minutes,’’ Ramirez said, holding one of the red buckets the workers use. “So this is essentially the same rate they’ve been paying since 1978. Obviously it’s not enough to support your family.’’

Suzi Robinson, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, said the company should not dictate worker compensation to their suppliers.

“It is not our place to enter into direct wage negotiations with employees of our suppliers,’’ she said. “We will pay market price to suppliers who comply to our standards.’’

Robinson said Stop & Shop holds its suppliers to the standards of its parent company, Ahold, which include provisions that bar suppliers from violating basic human rights, mandate workers’ right to collectively bargain, and provide for workplace health and safety.

“Ahold’s standards of engagement absolutely ensure our suppliers are treating their workers with dignity and respect and providing them with fair wages,’’ she said.

Robinson said company representatives have met with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to better understand their issues.

Lucas Benitez, another farm worker and organizer, acknowledged that Stop & Shop had met with the coalition, but said the company has refused to negotiate with them.

“Today we’re showing Boston what Stop & Shop’s real face is like,’’ Benitez said.

The coalition also called on Stop & Shop to agree to purchase produce only from suppliers who adhere to a code of conduct that ensures better working conditions for the farm workers.

Organizers said the code of conduct would ensure farm workers could report grievances and abuses without fear of reprisal; allow workers to establish health and safety committees; prevent overfilling tomato buckets without just compensation; educate workers about their rights; and address sexual harassment allegations in the workplace.

In recent months, after more than a decade of fighting for better wages and improved working conditions, nine major buyers of tomatoes, including McDonald’s, Burger King, and Whole Foods Market, have agreed to the coalition’s demands.

Many protesters held colorful signs and chanted slogans in support of farm workers as they marched down Huntington Avenue. One of the protesters, Alex Sugerman of Jamaica Plain, was dressed as Abraham Lincoln, whose likeness appears on the penny.

“It’s absolutely absurd that in 2011, people can work more than full time in unbelievably harsh conditions and make far below minimum wage,’’ Sugerman said.

Stewart Bishop can be reached at