Critics say fast feeder should address farm workers’ ‘subpoverty’ wages, conditions

By Lisa Jennings

OAK BROOK, Ill. (Dec. 12) – McDonald’s Corp.’s support for new workplace policies created by Florida farmers has drawn a firestorm of criticism from the labor coalition whose four-year boycott of Taco Bell led to its March agreement to pay a penny a pound more for Florida tomatoes.

With no less a human-rights champion than former President Jimmy Carter backing coalition leaders, prominent critics among the labor advocates have accused McDonald’s of “retreat” in the face of problems allegedly not addressed by the proposed farm worker protections.

But McDonald’s defended its position as “socially responsible.”

Last month McDonald’s became the first produce buyer to pledge “active support” for the newly created Socially Accountable Farm Employers, or SAFE, a nonprofit organization created to ensure that growers treat their field workers fairly and lawfully.

SAFE was launched by the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, or FFVA, a Maitland, Fla.-based trade group representing about 500 Florida growers, and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, or RCMA, an organization largely funded by growers that primarily provides childcare services for farm workers’ families.

Worker abuses in recent years have come to light after a series of convictions involving agricultural employers who were charged with modern-day slavery and exploitation of mostly migrant workers looking for seasonal work picking tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables. Florida grows about 95 percent of U.S. tomatoes sold in the winter and about 45 percent of those sold year-round.

The SAFE code is the result of “a growing realization that corporate social responsibility is beginning to wind its way into farming,” said Ray Gilmer, FFVA’s public affairs director.

Critics, however, including national religious, student and human-rights organizations, questioned the credibility of a code of conduct developed by agriculture employers without input from the workers it claims to protect.

Lucas Benitez, a spokesman for the , or CIW, which represents about 2,500 tomato and citrus pickers in southeastern Florida and which won the April pact with Taco Bell, said the drafted SAFE code does nothing to address the “subpoverty wages” paid to workers, who typically earn 40 cents per 32-pound bucket, or a minimum wage of $5.15 per hour.

Benitez pointed to McDonald’s’ recent announcement to offer “Fair Trade Certified” coffee — from growers that meet specific farming and labor standards, including paying a fair wage to pickers — in about 650 restaurants in New England and New York.

“Farm workers’ inadequate wages will only truly be addressed when McDonald’s does for tomato pickers what it is now doing for coffee pickers in its supply chain — pay a fair price so that workers can earn a fair wage,” Benitez said.

The Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, which represents about 100,000 U.S. congregations, described the SAFE code as “anemic,” and accused McDonald’s of opting to “retreat and protect the status quo.”

“McDonald’s, we at the National Council of Churches expect you to do better,” Edgar wrote. “As a corporation that benefits in the form of low-cost tomatoes from the current system, you have a pressing moral responsibility to act now.”

McDonald’s announcement followed the launch of a new campaign by CIW urging consumers to pressure the fast-food giant to follow in the footsteps of Louisville, Ky.-based Yum! Brands Inc., parent of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut.

Earlier this year, Taco Bell agreed to pay a self-imposed penny-per-pound surcharge on Florida tomatoes to improve wages and benefits for field workers. The agreement ended the four-year boycott of 6,500-unit Taco Bell by CIW and its far-flung allies, who also marched from Florida to the chain’s Irvine, Calif., headquarters in an attention-getting protest.

The boycott’s outcome also won accolades for the , which has since earned praise from justice advocates ranging from Nobel laureate and former President Carter to “Fast Food Nation” author Eric Schlosser, as well as a wave of support from prominent national organizations. All of them have called on other foodservice operators to follow Yum’s lead in subsidizing upgrades in wages and working conditions.

However, Benitez said, “We’re not calling for a boycott of McDonald’s at this time.

“McDonald’s has invested a great deal of resources in establishing its reputation as a leader in social responsibility. Rather than cast doubt on that reputation by taking half-measures seemingly designed to deflect efforts for real change for Florida’s farm workers, we certainly hope that McDonald’s will soon work directly with CIW to address the serious issues of subpoverty wages and substandard working conditions,” he said.

Yum’s surcharge is expected to result in the payment of about $100,000 to Florida farm workers this year, nearly doubling the pay of impacted tomato pickers. A third-party company agreed upon by Yum and CIW officials monitors the money distribution, according to Rob Poetsch, Taco Bell’s director of public relations.

As part of the agreement, Yum suppliers that agree to pass on the surcharge are also required to abide by all applicable labor laws, codes and regulations, and Yum has pledged to show preference to suppliers that demonstrate even higher standards.

“The relationship between Taco Bell and CIW has been very good,” Poetsch said. “We hope other companies follow our lead and participate in the program too.”

In a statement, however, Don Chally, senior director of McDonald’s social accountability, defended the global company’s decision to support SAFE.

“We remain confident in this new and comprehensive worker-focused approach,” he said. “We will continue to work with our independent suppliers and their producers to help drive socially responsible purchasing practices through third-party audits.”

However, Lisa Lochridge, a SAFE spokeswoman, said the program was still in its infancy.

The board of directors so far only includes representatives from FFVA and RCMA; others have yet to be selected. Bylaws for the group have not yet been established, and SAFE is not expected to begin auditing growers until after the first of the year.

Generally, to earn the SAFE seal of approval, growers will be required to comply with laws and regulations governing wages and benefits, and to foster a safe work environment free of violence, harassment or intimidation. No forced labor, child labor, or discrimination will be tolerated.

Intertek Group, a New York-based independent corporate auditing group, will certify growers after a roughly 30-day evaluation process that will include both self-review and a site visit. Growers who sign up will pay for certification, and annual renewal will be required.

Whether the SAFE code will include any surcharges like Taco Bell agreed to pay may be determined down the road, Gilmer said. But he added that Florida growers don’t want to be viewed as “high-cost providers.”

“This is a very price-sensitive business,” he said. “Paying an extra penny here and there, when you’re talking about millions of tomatoes, adds up to real money. It’s a question of can we compete.”

Barbara Mainster, RCMA’s executive director and a SAFE board member, agreed with the need for better wages. But she said farm workers’ concerns also include important issues such as job safety, decent housing and the proper regulation of pesticide use, which the SAFE code of conduct will address.

“This is absolutely a step in the right direction,” Mainster said. “If I thought this was just window dressing, I wouldn’t be involved.”

Though SAFE was created as an independent, third-party auditing group, critics note that spokeswoman Lochridge is vice president of CBR Public Relations, based in Maitland, Fla., which also represents a group of McDonald’s franchisees in Florida and has received an award from McDonald’s for promotional events for the Ronald McDonald House.

The United Students Against Sweatshops said in a statement: “McDonald’s assertion that SAFE is an independent monitoring agency is nothing short of laughable.”

The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, however, described the move by McDonald’s as a lost opportunity.

“By partnering with SAFE and embracing its weak expectations — which don’t include even such fundamental labor standards such as the right to overtime pay and freedom of association — McDonald’s is setting the bar even lower for its American agricultural producers than it does for its suppliers in communist China.”

The Rev. Noelle Damico, who represents the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s office of the general assembly, said, “Essentially SAFE asks growers to follow existing labor laws. Growers shouldn’t need a code of conduct to abide by the law.

“If McDonald’s were serious [about improving conditions for farm workers], McDonald’s would be sitting down right now with CIW, just like Yum! Brands did,” Damico said. “At the end of the day, we have to say, ‘Why isn’t McDonald’s doing this?'”

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