Fla. Tomato Pickers Still Reap 'Harvest of Shame': Boycott Helps Raise Awareness of Plight
By Evelyn Nieves
IMMOKALEE, Fla. -- The best part of the farm workers' day may be 4 a.m., still pitch black out, when they gather in a concrete building on the corner of Third and Main for hot coffee and bread.
Minutes later, hundreds of them, almost all men, head to a parking lot behind the building to wait for farm crew chiefs who will pick the workers who will pick the tomatoes for the day.
If they're lucky, the workers get to spend 12 hours on their hands and knees, filling buckets of tomatoes for 40 to 50 cents a bucket. To make at least $50, they scurry to fill 125 32-pound buckets -- two tons of tomatoes. But if it rains, as it did Friday, work stops. The workers are returned to the parking lot in rickety school buses 12 hours after they left, having earned just a few dollars, maybe none at all.
In short, things have not changed much in the 45 years since Edward R. Murrow's television documentary "Harvest of Shame" highlighted the plight of Immokalee's migrant workers. Today the Immokalee area, about 40 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico in southwest Florida, produces the largest supply of fresh tomatoes for the nation's supermarkets, as well as for some of the biggest fast-food chains in the world. But the farm workers are still dirt poor. They still work long days with no overtime, no benefits and no job security, seven days a week. They still live squished into hovels or packed 12 to a trailer, in trailers fit to be scrap.
But the Immokalee farm workers, or tomato pickers, as they call themselves, are making the improvement of their condition a national cause.
In 2001, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an advocacy group housed in the squat building where the workers get their pre-dawn coffee, launched a boycott of Taco Bell, an important buyer of Immokalee tomatoes. Taco Bell's corporate parent, Yum! Brands Inc., is the world's largest restaurant company with five restaurant chains. (KFC, Pizza Hut, A&W and Long John Silver's are the other four.)
The coalition, made up largely of the farm workers, says Yum! Brands helps perpetuate the workers' poverty by pressuring growers to sell tomatoes at volume discount prices, keeping wages low. But while talks between the coalition and the corporation have yielded little -- executives from Taco Bell and Yum! Brands say the workers are unfairly singling out the restaurant chain when it alone cannot change their plight -- the boycott has gathered steam and clout in the past couple of years.
Campus groups and dozens of faith groups, including the National Council of Churches, representing 50 million Christians, have endorsed the boycott, with students taking a strong role. "Boot the Bell" campaigns by students, part of the company's target market of 18- to 24-year-olds, have blocked or forced Taco Bell from 21 campuses, and boycott campaigns are underway at about 300 universities and 50 high schools.
On Monday, the coalition is launching its annual "Taco Bell Truth Tour," loading buses from Immokalee with 100 farm workers, most of them immigrants from southern Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti, on a 15-city publicity campaign. The buses will stop in Atlanta, Nashville, Cincinnati, Cleveland and other cities before ending with a rally on March 12 at Yum! Brands headquarters in Louisville. The rally will feature celebrity headliners, including actor Martin Sheen and Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late senator Robert F. Kennedy.
"Yum! Brands has the power to change the way it does business and the way the workers are treated," said Lucas Benitez, 29, a picker who helped found the coalition in 1993.
As the largest buyer of tomatoes of Yum! Brands' five restaurant chains, he said, Taco Bell should set an industry example by paying a penny more per pound of tomatoes, guaranteeing that the extra payment would go directly to workers, and by demanding that growers adhere to humane labor standards.
But Taco Bell spokeswoman Laurie Schalow said that the coalition may be asking the company for too much. "We have said we absolutely understand the workers' plight," Schalow said. "We really do." But, she added, "this is a problem that goes deep." For that reason, she said, the company offered to help develop a team that would lobby legislators -- "all the way to [Republican Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush" -- to change labor laws.
Contradicting an industry newspaper, the Packer, which describes Yum! Brands as a major player in the Florida tomato industry, Schalow said the company's role is not that big. "We actually are not a very large purchaser; we're really not," she said, adding that she does not know what percentage of the crop Yum! Brands buys. "Taco Bell uses tomatoes, but KFC really doesn't use tomatoes, Pizza Hut uses more tomato sauce products."
After two years of the boycott, Schalow said, Taco Bell last year sent the coalition a $110,000 check, representing an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes it bought in 2003. The coalition, she said, returned the check.
"That was just a tactic," the coalition's Benitez said of the check, "not a systemic change. How were we supposed to distribute the money? And how can the company claim that that was an honest response when they won't disclose how many pounds of tomatoes Yum! Brands buys from the suppliers?"
He said Yum! Brands President David C. Novak proposed helping the workers only if they agreed to end the boycott and only as part of an industry-wide solution. The proposal prompted former president Jimmy Carter to scold Novak, in a statement released by the Carter Center, for missing an opportunity "to take the lead in eliminating human rights abuses that he knows exist within his supply chain."
Benitez and other coalition members who have been spending 18-hour days planning the Truth Tour, said they realize that Taco Bell, or Yum! Brands, does not hold the entire solution to the workers' situation. The farm owners, the slumlords who rent dilapidated trailers to workers for $350 a week, and the labor contractors who mistreat and cheat the workers, as well as politicians who ignore the problems, all need an awakening, Benitez said.
But, just as major apparel retailers were forced to confront the conditions of the Southeast Asia sweatshops where their products are made after student-led anti-sweatshop campaigns, the coalition says, Taco Bell and Yum! Brands must confront the exploitation of farm workers.
No one disputes that Immokalee farm workers have been subjected to the most extreme injustice. The coalition has uncovered several slavery rings in Immokalee-area farms. In one case, based on two years of undercover work and investigation by the coalition in 2002, three Florida-based farm bosses were convicted in federal court of slavery, extortion and weapons charges and sentenced to nearly 35 years in prison. They were also ordered to forfeit more than $3 million in assets. The bosses had threatened more than 700 farm workers with death if they tried to leave and assaulted passenger van service drivers who gave rides to farm workers.
In a 2000 case, a farm contractor was convicted of holding more than 30 tomato pickers under armed watch in two trailers in an isolated swamp near Immokalee. When three workers escaped, the employer tracked them down, running one of them down with his car.
The coalition's work uncovering slavery garnered Benitez, of Guerrero, Mexico, and two other workers the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2003. The coalition is working with a federal task force that continues to investigate slavery rings.
Benitez said he hoped publicity for the Taco Bell boycott would help inform more people about the slavery, along with the general conditions of farm workers.
"What the laborers go through," he said, "is the shame of this country."
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