STEVE INSKEEP, host:
On Fridays, we talk about your money. And today, we'll talk about the money that fast food chains pay for the tomatoes that go on your burgers. Burger King is battling with tomato pickers in south Florida over how much it pays for those tomatoes. And we have more from Valerie Alker of member station WGCU in Fort Myers.
VALERIE ALKER: It's a breezy spring day just outside the farming community of Immokalee, where a field of tomatoes stretches almost to the horizon. Crews of workers are crouched down on their knees, stripping tomatoes from plants and tossing them into plastic buckets.
On a good day, a worker can harvest about 125 of these buckets, which weigh 32 pounds each. Lucas Benetez(ph) says it's hard labor.
Mr. LUCAS BENETEZ (Tomato Picker): You need to take this 32-pound bucket and run more than 100 feet to bring these buckets to the truck. So you need to run all day.
ALKER: For more than a decade, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or CIW, has advocated for farm worker rights. The group has uncovered cases of slavery in the fields and launched petition campaigns to convince McDonald's and Yum Brands - the parent company of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC - to pay workers an extra penny a pound for Florida tomatoes. Now the group wants Burger King to join in, but the CIW's Julia Perkins says the fast food chain won't.
Ms. JULIA PERKINS (Coalition of Immokalee Workers): What they're doing is that they're partnering with the Growers Exchange, which has been reluctant for years and years to see farm workers as human beings, not just as machines that harvest their crops.
ALKER: Workers who pick tomatoes in Florida get paid the same amount today they did 20 years ago - $.45 a bucket. An extra penny per pound brings that to $.77, a good raise, but still not much money.
When Yum Brands and McDonald's began paying a penny extra, workers made up to 50 more dollars a week. But the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange quashed the raise, citing concerns about tracking who picked what. Exchange Vice President Reggie Brown says he's worried Burger King and others will take their business elsewhere.
Mr. REGGIE BROWN (Vice president, Florida Tomato Growers Exchange): We could wake up a few years down the road with an industry that does not exist and be totally at the control of a imported tomato industry primarily coming out of Mexico. It would put growers out of business and farm workers out of jobs.
ALKER: Burger King spokesman Keva Silversmith says the company is committed to improving conditions for farm workers, but paying an extra penny a pound is something it's not willing to do.
Mr. KEVA SILVERSMITH (Spokesman, Burger King): We've made a donation to Redlands Christian Migrant Association. It's an organization that provides daycare and schooling to the children of migrant workers while the migrant workers are in the fields. And we're looking to provide donations to two organizations that can provide help to all kinds of social services that the farm workers need.
ALKER: For many immigrants, farm labor is the first step up the economic ladder. But University of Florida agricultural economist Fritz Roka says despite calls for more pay, workers are often left behind.
Professor FRITZ ROKA (Agricultural Economist, University of Florida): Farm work is never going to compensate people to a point where we can, as a general society, feel good that they're making a sufficient amount of money.
ALKER: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers still hopes to keep the pressure on Burger King. The CIW plans to deliver petitions to the hamburger chain's headquarters later this month.
For NPR News, I'm Valerie Alker in Fort Myers, Florida.
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