MIAMI (AP) _ More than a dozen farmworkers want Burger King and Subway to pay back wages they say the companies owe them under a deal the chains made with a Florida farmworker advocacy group, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the workers by the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.
The 2008 agreement between the food companies and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was devised to help boost wages for Florida tomato pickers, whose backbreaking labor provides much of the nation’s winter tomato crop. The companies were among several fast-food chains, including Taco Bell and McDonalds, which agreed to pay a penny more per pound for their tomatoes. The money was to be passed along to the workers by their employers: Florida tomato growers.
But there was a catch. The growers balked at the deal until last November, meaning the companies had no mechanism for passing on the extra money.
In the lawsuit filed Wednesday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, the 16 workers are asking for unspecified wages based on the number of tomatoes they picked that were bought by Burger King and Subway.
Their attorney Greg Schell says now that the growers are on board, it should be simple for the chains to provide back pay from 2008, or to explain why they don’t owe the money. But he says the companies have refused to discuss the issue. He said he is also planning to file suit against several other fast-food chains.
“I’ve been going five months and have yet to get an answer,” Schell said.
Miami-based Burger King Corp. said in a statement Thursday it had yet to see the lawsuit and could not comment. Subway did not immediately return calls for comment.
The coalition, which is not connected to the Justice Project, does not support the lawsuit.
The coalition said the companies had put the money in escrow until the growers were willing to participate in the deal. On Thursday, the group provided copies of a 2011 farmworker pay stub to The Associated Press showing larger than normal bonus distributions from McDonald’s and Subway it said represented the money accrued in the escrow accounts.
Julia Perkins of the coalition said some current workers have received the escrow funds even if they weren’t part of the past harvests, but she said it was unrealistic to try and track down workers from several seasons ago, many of whom have returned to Mexico and other countries.
“This seemed like the fairest way to distribute the money,” she said.
Schell insists that if those workers in Mexico want to claim the money, it should be theirs.
The coalition gained attention in 2005 when it first persuaded Taco Bell owner Yum! Brands to pay more for its tomatoes following a successful student-led boycott of the chain. Other companies, including McDonalds, eventually followed. Such victories were initially symbolic, as the chains only bought a small portion of the tomatoes harvested in Florida and because of the growers’ lack of participation. But the Coalition has since broadened its campaign to include food service and grocery store suppliers, signing a deal with Whole Foods in 2008, among other companies.
Its latest campaign has focused on grocery store chains such as Giant, Publix and Trader Joe’s, who buy the bulk of the region’s tomatoes.
The coalition said in a statement it was concerned the lawsuit would create confusion and distract from the group’s broader campaign to improve wages for farmworkers.
“For the wage increase to continue to grow, and the new protections to gain a strong and abiding foothold in the industry, more retail food companies, including the supermarket industry, must also do their part,” the statement said.
Before the coalition campaign, the mostly migrant workers had for years earned the same rough 45 cents per 30 lb bucket of tomatoes they picked. The labor is grueling, with workers bent over the low vines for hours at a time beneath the Florida sun.