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¡Si, Se Puede!

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Issue: 46 Section: Agriculture Geography: USA Florida, Imolakee Topics: migration, food security, corporate

May 24, 2007

¡Si, Se Puede!

Field workers in Florida say “Yes we can!” - and are

by Leigh Herbert

The Coalition of Imolakee Workers celebrates victories against some of the world's largest multinationals. Photo: Jason Allegria

Outside it's a chilly, grey morning in Chicago, but inside the House of Blues, there's a carnival in progress. An organization of migrant farmworkers has just won an agreement for higher wages and better working conditions from McDonald's, a fast food multinational headquartered in the city.

On stage, against a backdrop of giant puppets, an MC leads the crowd in call and response. “Coalition!” he yells. “Presente!” the people chant in return. Many in the audience raise their clenched fists in the air. Now, they are saying, it is Burger King’s turn.

“Coalition” is shorthand for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers [CIW], a group made up of mostly Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indians who work in the fields of Immokalee, an area of southwestern Florida. They pick, among other crops, most of the winter tomatoes grown in the U.S. The tomatoes are sold through a series of suppliers to restaurant chains like McDonald's or Burger King; eventually ending up as part of a meal sold at fast food drive-ins and counters across the United States.

“The major buyers of Florida produce...corporations like McDonald's [and] Burger King, leverage their unprecedented market power to secure the lowest possible prices for the produce they buy,” explains an analysis paper written by the Coalition. “This downward pressure on their suppliers’ prices in turn drives down workers’ wages.”

Workers in Immokalee earn as little as 45 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes harvested. To make minimum wage in a ten-hour day, they have to pick nearly 2 1/2 tons of tomatoes. In addition to not receiving health insurance, sick leave, paid vacation or pension, they also “have no right to overtime pay even when they work 60--70 hour weeks, and have no right to organize,” adds Lucas Benitez of the CIW. The Coalition uses the word 'sweatshops’ to describe their working conditions in the United States.

John Bowe, writing in The New Yorker, notes that most farmworkers in southern Florida are recently arrived immigrants to the U.S., who often do not to speak English. They are hired as crews by labour contractors who “...can exert near absolute control over their workers’ lives; besides handling the payroll and deducting taxes, they are frequently the sole source of the workers' food and housing, which in addition to the ride to and from the field, they provide for a fee.”

In the worst-case scenario, farmworkers are being held in involuntary servitude. In the past six years the CIW, through worker-led investigation and human-rights education, has helped the U.S. federal justice department with the prosecution and conviction of five modern-day slavery rings located in Florida, involving over 1000 workers.

The Coalition began about 13 years ago as a small group holding weekly meetings in a borrowed space. The CIW quickly grew in strength with community-wide work stoppages, three general strikes -- including a month-long hunger strike by six members in 1998 -- and a 230-mile march through Florida in 2000.

In 2001, after two decades of declining wages in the tomato industry, the CIW launched the first ever farmworker boycott of a major fast-food company, Taco Bell.

Between 2000 and 2005, 22 universities and high schools in the U.S. prevented or removed Taco Bell restaurants or sponsorships with the “Boot the Bell” campaign, spearheaded by one of the Coalition’s major allies, the Student Farmworkers Alliance (SFA).

In 2005, Taco Bell, owned by Yum! Brands, bowed to the pressure, making a historic agreement with the CIW. Taco Bell agreed to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked, almost doubling the workers daily wages; and to implement an enforceable code of conduct for its suppliers, to ensure the working conditions and human rights of the farmworkers are protected.

The Coalition has since attempted to secure similar agreements with a number of other restaurants chains, including Subway, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Burger King and McDonald's. The successful campaign against McDonald's culminated in the 2007 Truth Tour: a caravan of buses full of farmworkers travelling from Florida to Chicago.

So far, Burger King has publicly rejected CIW offers to negotiate. Instead, in a statement to the press, the company offered to send “recruiters” to Florida to retrain farmworkers, offering “ongoing professional training and advancement opportunities around the country for both entry level and skilled employee jobs at Burger King restaurants.”

The CIW is unenthusiastic about the proposal. “The farmworkers who pick tomatoes for Burger King are among this country's worst paid, least protected workers,” says Lucas Benitez, spokesperson for the Coalition. “Offer[ing] to address farmworker poverty by retraining tomato pickers to work in Burger King's restaurants -eliminating farmworker poverty by eliminating farmworkers - adds insult to injury with such an obviously unworkable, and frankly pretty ridiculous idea.”

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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