News & Politics

McDonald's vs. the Tomato Pickers

The fast-food giant tries to appease migrant farmworkers while doing everything possible to keep its labor costs dirt-cheap.
Having forced Taco Bell to pay tomato pickers a penny more per pound, a farmworkers' organization in southern Florida is pressuring McDonald's for a similar agreement. But the group charges that the fast-food chain has attempted to circumvent the campaign, instead signing on to a corporate responsibility pledge that critics suspect was cooked up by companies working to maintain the dismal status quo suffered by laborers in American tomato fields.

Last spring, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) won an unprecedented victory when their boycott and protests convinced Taco Bell and parent company, Yum Brands, to ensure companies from which it buys tomatoes will pay their field hands one cent more per pound and adhere to a relatively progressive workers' rights code. This fall, the CIW launched a campaign demanding McDonald's sign a comparable agreement, hoping that McDonald's, even more so than Taco Bell, could help raise wages and improve working conditions across the board.

The organization of mostly immigrant workers is asking that McDonald's pay a "fair increase" per pound for the tomatoes it purchases and that the restaurant chain ensure the price increase gets passed on to the tomato pickers. The Immokalee Workers also asks that McDonald's "establish an enforceable code of conduct to ensure safe working conditions" in the fields where its tomatoes are picked.

In a letter the CIW asks supporters to pass on to the fast food giant, the group writes: "Your recent initiative to offer only fair trade coffee in your New England restaurants demonstrates your commitment to the principles of fair wages and working conditions for those who produce the food you sell. You have the opportunity to ensure the same kind of dignity for the tomato pickers in your supply chain by following the lead established by Yum Brands earlier this year."

But the CIW says that after several talks with McDonald's officials, they have made little headway. Company representatives did not return any of several calls about this issue.

The company has, however, joined an initiative called the Socially Accountable Farm Employer (SAFE) voluntary certification program. The initiative purports to certify producers that have "complied with all applicable laws and regulations governing employment" and foster a work environment "free of hazard, intimidation, violence and harassment."

SAFE was announced November 3 and so far is run by board members from two organizations: the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association industry group and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, a nonprofit providing childcare to migrant workers.

Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association spokesperson Ray Gilmer explained that SAFE will be a voluntary certification program, in which an international auditing firm called Intertek, which already performs safety audits for McDonald's, will annually evaluate participating growers and award them a SAFE certification if they are found in compliance.

Input and protections absent

But critics of SAFE -- most prominently the CIW and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights -- point out that SAFE does not include any input from workers and does little to address low wages. Some workers in Immokalee currently bring in about $8,000 a year.

The initiative also does not guarantee workers overtime pay or the right to organize. It only requires that growers follow all applicable laws, which, for farmworkers in the US, provide few legal protections. The National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees the right to unionize, does not apply to agricultural workers. And the Fair Labor Standards Act exempts them from overtime pay.

Amanda Shanor, program director with the Center for Human Rights, said she suspects McDonald's is using SAFE as a way to avoid signing an agreement guaranteeing better wages and organized labor protections.

"McDonald's has decided to work with the growers instead of the workers," she said. "CIW or any other workers had no say in what the SAFE Code of Conduct would entail or how it would work ... Without worker input, a meaningful code of conduct, and a real mechanism to address the workers' sub-poverty wages, this is not a real solution."

In interviews with The NewStandard, the two organizations participating in SAFE acknowledged that so far no workers have been involved in the initiative, but said a diversity of groups will be represented by board members. They would not, however, specifically say that workers would be included.

"This is a fledgling organization," said Redlands Christian Migrant Association director of community relations Matt Bokor. "Our hope is that it moves the needle in a positive direction for farmworkers. It's not a panacea; no one's thinking it's the be-all and end-all, but we envision in five years' time there'll be enough buy-in from growers that you'll see orange juice with the SAFE seal in stores and also OJ without it, and the shopper might choose the SAFE product."

But CIW members and farmworkers' advocates see a more sinister side to SAFE.

"SAFE doesn't really make a concrete change in the lives of workers; it doesn't have any real credibility," said Lucas Benitez, a migrant farmworker and CIW organizer. "It's a shame that McDonald's doesn't see this or doesn't want to see this. This code was developed to protect their public image in place of making a change in our lives."

The lives of the workers in Immokalee are plagued by poverty and hardship. Rising early, the pickers congregate and wait in a parking lot for crew leaders to choose them for a day's work. Once in the fields, they race to pick enough tomatoes to support themselves, filling and hefting 42-pound buckets of the fruit.

According to CIW, the going rate for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes in the Immokalee fields is between 40 and 50 cents, meaning that to make $56, a picker would have to harvest approximately 4,000 pounds. The Taco Bell agreement, with its one penny-per-pound raise, gives pickers harvesting tomatoes for Yum Brands approximately $96 for the same weight.

In order to be close to where they work, many of the pickers rent trailers near the fields, where they sometimes live 10-20 in a home and collectively pay as much as $1,200 per month. Much of the housing does not have heat or air conditioning in a climate where temperatures can soar to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit or plummet to below freezing.

Web of connections

CIW members are suspicious that SAFE was publicly unveiled before it was a fully-formed organization, with only two board members and rudimentary information on its website.

Shanor suspects McDonald's may have helped originate SAFE. As of early December, several weeks after SAFE was unveiled, McDonald's was the only company publicly committed to buying SAFE-certified produce. The press contact for SAFE is CBR Public Relations, which lists McDonald's as one of its prime clients and advertises its specialties in public-image damage control including "activist response management."

"The web of connections between McDonald's, CBR Public Relations, [private auditors] Intertek and the growers at the very time McDonald's was being pushed by the CIW to raise labor standards in its agricultural supply chain should raise everyone's eyebrows," said Shanor. "It seems highly unlikely that this whole thing was taken up independently by the growers, and much more probable that McDonald's had a strong hand in it. It could easily be interpreted in a cynical way, as being a PR move to get out of taking real accountability."

Lisa Lochridge, vice president of CBR and the spokesperson for SAFE, denied that the public relations firm was involved in SAFE's formation. She said CBR was retained by the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association to handle media relations for the initiative.

"The issues that were raised during the Taco Bell situation, we realize, aren't going to go away," she said. "The founding members of SAFE wanted to get ahead of the curve and be proactive."

However, workers rights' advocates are leery of Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association's motivation in forming SAFE. They point out that SAFE's mission is to protect the interest of growers that employ farmworkers, including by keeping costs down and by addressing labor issues, according to the organization's own website.

They also note that the Redlands Christian Migrant Association has received funding from the Fruit and Vegetable Association, and the two groups previously shared a top officer: George Sorn.

"Everyone's watching the agreement Yum has with the coalition, and it seems to be working well," Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association spokesperson Gilmer said. "But the concern is that down the road, if there are additional wages that will end up making Florida farms the higher-cost alternative, and they'll be undercut by other states or Mexico, since most farms don't have these agreements."

But the Immokalee Workers point out that the Florida Tomato Committee, an industry group that works with the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, has already successfully promoted the application of industry-wide surcharges on all Florida tomatoes as a means to pass rising input costs on to their customers. In the past several years, surcharges have been added to recoup increased costs for everything from chemicals to fuel. This, they say, shows that small wage increases would not be detrimental to the Florida tomato industry.

Shanor said McDonalds is losing a big opportunity to "do the right thing" at an "incredibly small cost."

"They have such clout in the U.S. agricultural industry," she said, "and the ability to affect -- for good or ill -- the lives of thousands upon thousands of farm workers."
Kari Lydersen is a core contributor to The NewStandard, a nonprofit and anti-commercial independent news site.
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