February 6, 2007

CIW Issues Response to Burger King’s “Penny Per Pound” Statement

Florida’s farmworkers – including the workers who pick tomatoes for fast-food giants like Burger King and McDonald’s — are among this country’s most exploited workers. Workers face sweatshop conditions every day in the fields, including:

Sub-poverty wages – Tomato pickers earn roughly $10,000/year, according to the US Department of Labor;
No raise in nearly 30 years – Pickers are paid virtually the same per bucket piece rate today as they were in 1980. At the going rate, workers have to pick nearly 2½ TONS of tomatoes just to earn minimum wage for a typical 10-hr day;
Denied fundamental labor rights – Farmworkers in Florida have no right to overtime pay and no right to organize;

In the most extreme cases, workers face actual conditions of modern-day slavery. Federal Civil Rights officials have prosecuted five slavery operations — involving over 1,000 workers — in Florida’s fields since 1997.

In March 2005, following a four-year boycott, Taco Bell agreed to work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to set new standards for the fair treatment of farm labor in its supply chain. The Taco Bell agreement established:

* a pay raise nearly doubling the going piece rate when workers pick for Taco Bell;
* supply chain transparency;
* a verifiable zero tolerance policy for modern-day slavery, and
* the right for farmworkers to participate in the definition and implementation of an enforceable code of conduct.

Taco Bell also challenged its fast-food industry counterparts to follow its lead and demand fair wages and humane treatment for the workers who pick their tomatoes.

Now, nearly two years later, after careful study, Burger King has announced its own plan to address farmworker poverty. In a statement to the press, Burger King declared:

“We have spoken to CIW representatives about our interest in recruiting interested Immokalee workers into the BURGER KING(R) system. We have offered to send Burger King Corporation recruiters to the area to speak with the CIW and with workers themselves about permanent, full-time employment at BURGER KING(R) restaurants. Burger King Corporation offers ongoing professional training and advancement opportunities around the country for both entry-level and skilled employee jobs, and we are hopeful the CIW will accept our offer.”

In response to Burger King’s announcement, Lucas Benitez of the CIW said, “Burger King’s plan to eradicate farmworker poverty is so simple as to be almost magical. Send a crack team of Burger King trainers into Immokalee, retrain thousands of farmworkers to be Burger King restaurant employees, and *poof* farmworker poverty disappears…”

“This suggestion might seem comical,” Benitez continued, “until you stop to think that Burger King is actually responsible for keeping the workers in poverty through their leveraging of volume purchases to drive down tomato prices and, consequently, tomato pickers’ wages.”

The CIW is not alone in blaming the fast-food giants, and Burger King in particular, for farmworker poverty.

In an article entitled “Big fast-food contracts breaking tomato re-packers,” from the produce journal “The Packer” (May 16, 2005), Charles Porter, a re-packer from Homestead, FL, wrote:

“Recently, Miami-based Burger King changed its tomato pricing method to the extreme detriment of the tomato farmer and re-packer. Restaurant Services Inc., which is owned by Burger King franchisees, handles the purchasing and sets the rules by which the game is played…
With the new pricing scheme, and under the expectation of loss of business, repackers were forced to discount the cost of tomatoes bought from the farm…
Now, these growers are being forced to lower their prices for these specific tomatoes just so the repackers can break even…
This eventually will work its way down to the tomato pickers, who may be forced to take a pay cut…
Forcing down the cost of tomatoes, a minor component on the fast-food menu, does little to make the restaurant more profitable. It will go a long way toward harming a loyal group of suppliers and growers and their workers.”

“The facts are simple,” continued Benitez. “Burger King has made clear that it is willing to use its market clout to drive down workers’ wages, but not to raise them. In contrast, Taco Bell agreed to take direct responsibility for improving farmworker wages and working conditions. The Taco Bell agreement has worked well and the penny-per-pound payment has functioned smoothly.”

In its announcement, Burger King also claimed that it would be impossible to replicate the Taco Bell penny-per-pound payment in its supply chain, explaining that the company does “not identify the specific growers, tomatoes, or workers who pick the tomatoes that are used in our restaurant.” Yet Burger King supply chain managers told CIW representatives that, in fact, it would not be at all difficult to trace tomatoes back to the farm from which they came, and that traceability should not be an obstacle to instituting a surcharge pay-through as did Taco Bell.

Said Benitez, “It is ridiculous for Burger King to claim that it does not know where its tomatoes come from. If that were true, then Burger King could not tell its customers that its tomatoes aren’t being picked on any of the Florida farms recently connected with slave labor. Nor could it reassure its customers that its tomatoes come from farms that are taking appropriate steps to avoid food-borne illnesses like the recent E.Coli outbreaks. In short, Burger King’s statement shows as little respect for its customers as it does for the farm workers who pick the produce that goes into its products.”

The Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), perhaps put it best in a letter to Burger King CEO John Chidsey on January 10th of this year:

“Already at the table are the CIW’s expertise, a flexible model, and clear precedents. The only thing missing in order to end the human rights abuses of tomato pickers is Burger King’s willingness. Any company who profits from the exploitation of others is morally and ethically responsible for that exploitation.”

“Nearly two years after the settlement of the Taco Bell boycott, Burger King continues to lack the will to institute a few simple measures to bring about long-overdue farm labor fairness in its supply chain,” concluded Lucas Benitez. “That’s why, today, CIW members say, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, we are tired of ‘relying on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us.’”