Friday, November 30, 2007


The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) joined by hundreds of allies and concerned consumers marched nine miles to Burger King's corporate headquarters in Miami today to seek improved wages and working conditions for farm workers. The march began this morning shortly after 10 a.m. at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami on Biscayne Boulevard South, near Goldman Sachs office, one of three private equity firms that controls most of Burger King’s stock, where hundreds of protesters, wearing yellow “Exploitation King” T-shirts, from the nation gathered.

The Naples News reports supporters were waving yellow flags that read “Esperanza” (hope in Spanish), holding signs that read “Fair Wages for Farmworkers” and wearing crowns that read “Justice” and “Dignity.”

Music of jaranas, small guitars, and songs by Son del Centro, a band from California, filled the air minutes before the start of the march.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ demands include a penny increase to farmworkers who harvest tomatoes, a code of conduct that guarantees no abuse of where they buy their tomatoes and dialogue between Burger King, the Coalition and the agriculture companies from where they buy the tomatoes.

Two years ago, the Coalition reached an agreement to improve wages and working conditions for farmworkers with Taco Bell owners Yum! Brands. Earlier this year, an agreement was reached with McDonald's restaurants.

CIW spokesperson Lucas Benitez said, "In the wake of our agreements with Yum Brands and McDonald's, we have arrived on the threshold of a more modern, more humane agricultural industry in Florida. Yet rather than join us on that path toward further progress, Burger King has allied itself with tomato industry representatives to push us back, back toward the same abuse and exploitation we have experienced for decades."

Benitez continued, "But we will not be turned back. We will not give up the gains we have already won, and we will continue forward until all of Florida's farmworkers can enjoy a fair wage and humane conditions in this state's fields."

Florida's farmworkers – including the workers who pick tomatoes for fast-food giants like Burger King -- face sweatshop conditions every day in the fields, the coalition said. They include sub-poverty wages (tomato pickers earn roughly $10,000/year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor); no raise in nearly 30 years (pickers are paid virtually the same per bucket piece rate today as in 1980 - at the going rate, workers must pick more than 2.5 TONS of tomatoes just to earn minimum wage for a typical 10-hr day); and the denial of fundamental labor rights (no right to overtime pay nor right to organize).

In the most extreme cases, workers face actual conditions of modern-day slavery. The CIW has helped Federal Civil Rights officials to prosecute five slavery operations --involving over 1,000 workers -- in Florida's fields since 1997.

The following is from the San Diego Tribune.

Tomato pickers protest at Burger King HQ over low wages
By Adrian Sainz

MIAMI – Farmworkers, union members and activists marched through city streets to Burger King headquarters Friday to protest low wages for tomato pickers and alleged exploitation of field workers.

About 300 to 400 protesters gathered under the skyscrapers of Miami's downtown, many wearing yellow T-shirts reading “Exploitation King” and “Burger King Exploits Farmworkers,” others holding signs saying “Dignity” or “Justice for Tomato Pickers.” The marchers, some strumming guitars and banging large tin cans with sticks, then began their nine-mile trek to Burger King's offices.

The protesters are pressuring the Miami-based fast-food giant to pay a penny more per pound for Florida tomatoes – with their suppliers passing the money on directly to farm workers.

Burger King has not accepted the deal. The company, owned by Burger King Holdings Inc., says it is willing to negotiate with the workers on a code of conduct for its vendors to prevent worker exploitation, but it sees no clear legal way to directly pay the workers. Tomato growers say it would be illegal to let outside groups set wages.

McDonald's Corp. and Taco Bell owner Yum Brands Inc. have reached similar agreements already with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who organized the march. But those deals are not currently in effect due to resistance from growers.

Pickers such as Sonia Lopez, 50, want better work conditions and higher wages. Many tomato pickers in the farming community of Immokalee, about 80 miles west of Miami, must toil in the dirt and hot sun for modest wages, living in cramped trailers with no overtime or health care. Most field workers are immigrants, and are here illegally.

“We want just a penny (more) per pound, that's not a lot,” Lopez, 50. “It will help our quality of life. It will help people make more money and be able to live a decent life, a better life. This affects all of us.”

Nearby, Juan Antillon, 48, also a farm worker in Immokalee, holds a protest sign with tough, hardened hands weathered from picking tomatoes for seven years.

“It's going to be a difficult march, but one that I'll finish,” Antillon said. “This is a small step but an important one.”

Florida supplies 80 percent of America's domestic fresh tomatoes between Thanksgiving and February. The agreements reached with McDonald's and Yum Brands were mostly symbolic, affecting only a tiny segment of Florida tomato pickers, but they paved the way for raising wages and strengthening farm worker rights across the industry.

Worker wages would essentially double if the McDonald's and Yum Brands deals are adopted industrywide. Yum Brands says it is still committed to the coalition, yet after two successful seasons, its suppliers opted out this year. McDonald's has yet to find any supplier who will participate but will continue to buy Florida tomatoes either way.

Steven Grover, a Burger King vice president in charge of food safety and quality assurance, said the door remains open for negotiation, but the mechanism of paying the extra penny directly to the workers “is very obscure and legally questionable from a number of angles.”

Grover said the protest was the coalition's way of stirring up controversy.

“This protest is a colossal waste of resources and time that could be focused on helping the migrant workers in Immokalee,” he said.

Tomato farm workers were not the only ones marching Friday. They were joined by members of area unions, religious leaders and even high school students from Naples.

Oscar Salas, a former orange picker from Tampa area who works as a construction worker, said he's seen instances where employers threatened to call immigration authorities if workers asked for more money.

“Wages (for orange pickers) have been stagnant out there for 30 years, just like tomatoes,” said Salas, 30, of Dade City. “I realized that my housing conditions were affected by the low wages my family lived and worked under for 20 years. We're not even middle class.”

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