Immokalee workers may launch boycott of McDs

CHICAGO — Imagine waking up every morning, still dark outside, and then have to pick tomatoes for a typical 10-hour workday, seven days a week, in sweatshop conditions with armed guards watching over you.

Sound back-breaking or nerve-wracking?

Well, you’re a farmworker, an immigrant working 60-70 hour weeks with no rights or labor protections and you live in very poor conditions. Tomato workers are not covered by many labor laws. They have no overtime pay, health insurance, sick leave, paid vacation or other benefits.

Farmworker leaders from Immokalee, Fla., the state’s largest farmworker community and the source of more than 90 percent of fresh winter tomatoes produced in the U.S., say such exploitation is a form of modern-day slavery and indentured servitude.

“It’s true, slavery still exists,” said Cruz Salucio Perez, 22, originally from Guatemala and now a leader with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). “Workers are forced to work in slave-like conditions and are constantly watched by armed guards and cannot have visitors. Some have been threatened, others beaten.”

The CIW is a community-based worker organization largely composed of Haitian, Mayan and other immigrants from Latin America. It is leading a campaign to press McDonald’s, the top leader of the $100 billion fast-food industry, to address farmworker exploitation in its tomato supply chain.

During a recent presentation here, Perez said governmental action has been limited, but “the people, the consumers, have the real power to resist and pressure McDonald’s.”

The Student Farmworker Alliance (SFA), a national network of students and youth, arrived in Chicago in January, along with the Campaign for Fair Food and CIW, to rally support for an April 13 demonstration outside McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., where they may declare a national boycott of the “Golden Arches.” On April 14 the groups plan to lead a parade in front of the Rock ’n’ Roll McDonald’s in downtown Chicago, which will end at Federal Plaza with fun activities full of music and protest.

SFA national coordinator Marc Rodriguez, 25, said CIW and his group have given nearly 100 presentations to city elementary, high school and college students. They have also visited churches, labor and community groups. Rodriguez said the response has been “great,” especially when people draw the connections between what’s happening in Immokalee and their own communities. Since fast-food corporations target young people, Rodriguez said, they will have to pay attention to a revolt by that strategic consumer market.

CIW, formed in 1993, has over 2,500 members who work for large agricultural corporations, traveling the entire East Coast following the tomato and citrus harvests. In the past six years the group has played a key role in the discovery, investigation and prosecution of five modern-day slavery cases and immigrant smuggling operations.

The organization is popularly known for leading a successful four-year national boycott of Taco Bell and its parent company, Yum Brands. In 2005, Taco Bell agreed to establish a code of conduct and guarantee farmworker participation in protecting their rights along with a wage increase. CIW hopes to establish the same agreement with McDonald’s, and set a precedent the whole fast-food industry will follow.

CIW says McDonald’s has not recognized the serious abuse the tomato pickers endure and has so far refused to work with the organization to address the issue.

Most Immokalee farmworkers work on small, individually owned farms. They are paid about 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket of fruit they pick. CIW and its allies are urging McDonald’s to pay 1 cent more per pound of tomatoes they buy from contractors hiring the farmworkers. This would raise the farmworkers’ pay to 77 cents per bucket, a 72 percent increase.

Tomato pickers average $10,000 per year and have not had a raise in nearly 30 years. They must pick nearly 2.5 tons of tomatoes just to earn minimum wage in a 10-hour workday, or harvest 181 pounds to afford a “Big Mac” sandwich at McDonald’s.

“We all know how big and powerful McDonald’s is, but they achieved that on the back of farmworkers sweat and labor, directly contributing to their exploitation,” said Rodriguez.

“It’s about time McDonald’s takes some responsibility,” he concluded.

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