DOES FARM LABOR SCANDAL POINT TO McDONALD'S SUPPLIER?...
The top story in the Ft. Myers News Press today, Friday December 9, reads:
"The Immokalee contractor who prosecutors called 'brutal' for beating migrant workers and extorting money from them to pay off smuggling debts, spent 33 months in prison for enslaving migrant farmworkers in 1999.
But today he's back in business furnishing labor to farmers in Florida and New Jersey. And it's perfectly legal. He can't own a gun or vote, but the law says he can work as a labor contractor five years after his conviction.
'It may be legal, but it ain't right,' said Doug Molloy, chief assistant U.S. Attorney in Ft. Myers who prosecuted Cuello and his brother Basilio Cuello in 1999."
The CIW helped federal prosecutors develop the case against Abel Cuello and his brother in 1999, one of six such cases the CIW helped discover, investigate, and prosecute since 1997. Laura Germino, Coordinator of the CIW's Anti-Slavery Campaign, is quoted in the same article, asking, "Regardless of the loophole allowing him to get a license, what kind of company hires someone with a criminal record -- particularly a criminal record of egregious labor abuse -- to oversee their employees?" (Click here for the full story, "Former smuggler, slaver back in business -- legally")
The above image, by Larry Kresek, is from an article entitled "Slaves Among Us," a guest commentary by Doug Molloy to Gulfshore Life Magazine
The answer to that question is Ag-Mart, a company also in the news recently for being fined nearly $300,000 by Florida and North Carolina for repeatedly violating rules designed to protect workers from dangerous pesticide poisoning -- strict harvesting and field re-entry rules that require a seven-day waiting period before picking resumes after a pesticide application. Those fines were the result of a seven-month probe by state regulators that began after the Palm Beach Post reported the births of three deformed babies to Ag-Mart farmworkers in Immokalee. (Click here for the Palm Beach Post editorial, "Publix punishes Ag-Mart" 10/29/05)
Ag-Mart, of course, doesn't operate in a vacuum -- someone buys the tomatoes Ag-Mart produces. And so the question begs to be asked: What kind of company buys tomatoes produced by a grower that, by all accounts, shows such disregard for its workers' rights, health, and safety? According to a New York Times story from February of this year, McDonald's is a major buyer of Ag-Mart's grape tomatoes:
"J.M. Procacci, chief operating officer of Procacci Brothers Sales Corporation in Cedarville, NJ, said sales of grape tomatoes, climbing for the past five years, had received a particular boost from their inclusion in the McDonald's premium salads. Since early 2003, grape tomato sales in the United States have risen 25 percent; he attributes a significant part of the gain to McDonald's." (Click here to see the entire article, "You Want Any Fruit With That Big Mac?", 2/20/05)
Ag-Mart, marketer of the Santa Sweets grape tomato, is a subsidiary of Procacci Brothers.
Today's story in the News Press raises some legitimate -- indeed, urgent -- questions for McDonald's. First, and foremost, does McDonald's, today, continue to purchase tomatoes from Ag-Mart? If so, does McDonald's condone the employment of a crewleader convicted of indentured servitude? And more to the point, how would McDonald's new partnership with the unproven, employer-dominated "SAFE" initiative respond to Mr. Cuello's return to managing labor in the company's supply chain? [For more on SAFE see the CIW analysis, "What we have learned," or scroll down this page for statements by national religious, human rights, and student organizations on the new initiative.] SAFE requires only that employers abide by federal and state labor law, and so Mr. Cuello's presence in Ag-Mart's fields would not trigger any violation of the SAFE code of conduct. Would McDonald's demand more? Would the SAFE enforcement process even detect the presence of a boss like Mr. Cuello, a man Nola Theiss, co-chair of the Coalition Against Human Trafficking in Southwest Florida, called "a human predator"?
Workers in Immokalee are dying to know.