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Wal-Mart joins program to lift Florida tomato farmworker pay

Customers walk outside a Walmart store in the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles November 26, 2013. REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian
Customers walk outside a Walmart store in the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles November 26, 2013. REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian

MIAMI (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc joined a program on Thursday promoted by workers' rights groups that aims to improve pay and working conditions for Florida farmworkers who pick tomatoes sold to grocery store and restaurant chains.

The world's largest retailer will participate in the Fair Food Program, an initiative started by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of farmworker activists in Florida.

The decision by Wal-Mart adds another big name to the program under which companies agree to pay pickers a penny more for every pound of fruit they harvest.

"We are truly pleased to welcome Wal-Mart into the Fair Food Program," Cruz Salacio, a spokesman for the coalition said in a statement.

"Through this collaboration, not only will thousands of hard-working farmworkers see concrete improvements to their lives, but millions of consumers will learn about the Fair Food Program and of a better way to buy fruits and vegetables grown and harvested here in the U.S.," he said.

Other major companies participating in the program include Burger King, Chipotle Mexican Grill, McDonald's Corp, Subway, the Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Market supermarket chains and Yum Brands, the owner of restaurant chains KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

"Our participation in the Food Fair Program combined with long term supply agreements with our suppliers will ensure that our customers get great products at great prices from suppliers that are working to improve the lives of their workers," said Tom Leech, a Wal-Mart senior vice president.

Florida is the second-largest tomato-growing state in the country after California, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, producing more than $600 million worth.

Some 33,000 tomato pickers work in Florida, earning salaries estimated between $10,000 and $13,000 a year, according to worker groups.

The coalition was formed in the early 1990s in Immokalee, a city in southwestern Florida at the heart of the state's tomato industry. Angry over pay and working conditions, the group began pressing for higher wages for tomato pickers, many of them immigrants from Latin America, first with strikes and then boycotts.

The group reached an agreement in 2010 with Florida tomato growers to implement the Fair Food Program, which also strengthened workplace conditions including a zero tolerance for forced labor.

(Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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