WireTap

Slavery Beneath the Golden Arches?

In light of recent revelations that McDonald's buys tomatoes through at least one convicted slaver, a farmworkers' group is urging the company to change its ways.
Exactly 50 years ago this weekend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. answered a startling phone call from Minneapolis Tribune journalist Carl T. Rowan. Rowan had come across a wire report that the Montgomery bus boycott -- then entering its sixth week -- had been resolved by city officials and local black ministers.

The announcement would, of course, prove to be a fabrication of local authorities, and the boycott would endure another 11 months, resulting in the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Alabama's bus segregation laws.

Today -- in the face of a recent revelation that McDonald's appears to buy its tomatoes through at least one convicted slaver -- the fast food giant has resorted to a similarly shameful tactic: taking token measures to avoid confronting the severe human rights abuses that may be hidden within its supply chain.

Since 1997, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) -- a community group from Southern Florida representing thousands of farmworkers -- has uncovered, investigated and helped to prosecute six separate slavery cases. In 2003, three CIW members were awarded the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their work in liberating over 1,100 individuals involuntarily held in agricultural work camps along the East Coast.

Last November, CIW called upon McDonald's to partner with them in confronting the violence and subpoverty wages of modern-day farm labor. McDonald's complicity in farmworker misery is not only emblematic of the industry as a whole, but its substantial clout as a fast-food monolith qualifies it as an apt candidate for working to end the extreme injustice.

Farm labor contractor Abel Cuello is just one of the slavers brought to justice by the CIW. In 1999, he was sentenced to only 33 months in prison for enslaving 27 people in trailers on his property. Due to a loophole in Florida law, a contractor is entitled to return to work just five years after being convicted for violating worker-protection laws. Accordingly, in October, Cuello legally returned to the fields.

In his contractor license application dated Oct. 8, 2004, Cuello stated that his job is to "recruit, supervise, [and] transport farm workers for Ag-Mart Farms." Although Ag-Mart claimed that Cuello has been banned from the company's premises, it employs E&B Harvesting and Trucking Inc., the company that Cuello launched just months after release from prison, and that his wife, Yolanda, presently serves as the sole owner.

Gregory Schell, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Lake Worth, Fla., who has spoken with scores of Ag-Mart farmworkers, insists that Cuello -- and not Yolanda -- works as E&B Harvesting's crew boss for Ag-Mart. "His wife has never been seen in the fields by the crew. He [Cuello] runs the operation," Schell said.

So who buys tomatoes from a man convicted of human enslavement? The answer seems to lie beneath the Golden Arches.

J.M. Procacci, chief operating officer of the company that owns Ag-Mart, told the New York Times last year that nationwide sales of grape tomatoes had increased by 25 percent since 2003, and that specifically "he attributes a significant part of the gain to McDonald's."

Yet, McDonald's -- despite the fact that last year Ag-Mart received notice of 457 pesticide violations from North Carolina and Florida agricultural officials (along with fines totaling $294,500) and was subject to state investigations after severe birth defects were found in three babies born to its farmworkers -- continues to buy tomatoes through Ag-Mart. Even the notoriously anti-labor Wal-Mart has reacted by terminating its tomato purchases from Ag-Mart.

But the point isn't that McDonald's should discontinue buying from Ag-Mart; the industry on the whole is similarly terrible. While slavery is the extreme of labor abuses in agriculture, sweatshop conditions are the norm. Farmworkers must pick two tons of tomatoes -- literally 4,000 pounds -- to earn just $50 in a day. They regularly work 10- to 12-hour days with no overtime pay, no right to organize, no sick days and no benefits whatsoever.

McDonald's could use its market power to work with farmworkers in ensuring fair and humane working conditions in the fields. Instead, it has thrown its support behind an initiative controlled by growers called Socially Accountable Farm Employers, deceptively abbreviated "SAFE."

Just as Montgomery city officials bluffed a resolution to bus segregation (due to the subsequent boycott) on Jan. 21, 1956, so too in 2006 has McDonald's sidestepped the appearance of a convicted slaver in their supply chain by proclaiming allegiance to SAFE.

Furthermore, a number of curious coincidences have led many to rightfully question McDonald's very involvement in the creation of SAFE.

First, SAFE hired CBR Public Relations to handle its media work -- a company that not only lists McDonald's as one of its major clients and garnered McDonald's nationally coveted Best Bets award in 2001 for excellence in press work, but also lists "activist response management" among its areas of expertise.

Second, SAFE has hired the auditing company Intertek to verify its companies' certification, interestingly the same firm already used by McDonald's for its own monitoring.

Third, according to SAFE spokesperson Ray Gilmer, of all the businesses that purchase tomatoes from Florida -- among them supermarkets and sit-down and fast-food restaurants -- McDonald's remains the lone company to publicly support the SAFE initiative.

Regardless of whether McDonald's worked to covertly concoct SAFE, its existence (as in the case of the false settlement in Montgomery) nonetheless enables the company to evade truly rectifying the grave realities demanding resolution -- the intolerably cruel system of farm labor that sustains its profit-making. It's an evasion tactic that failed in apartheid Alabama 50 years ago and will fail today.

If semi-centennials are honored with gold, then on the anniversary of the historic Montgomery bus boycott -- and white supremacist Southern officials' inability to suppress it -- it is incumbent upon the Golden Arches to embrace this golden opportunity to work with the CIW in abolishing the industry's horrific exploitation of farmworkers.
For more information please visit the website of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Katie Shepherd and Jordan Buckley are members of the Student/Farmworker Alliance in Austin, Texas.
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