UNITED STATES: Florida workers take on Taco Bell



IMMOKALEE — If a small union of Florida farmworkers has its way, the nasal voice of the famous Chihuahua will be saying, "No quiero Taco Bell" (I don't want Taco Bell) on college campuses across the United States.

For almost a decade, the campus anti-sweatshop movement has exposed the poor conditions of overseas workers who produce big-label sportswear favoured by US youth. Now tomato pickers in the everglades are urging young people to look closer to home.

Students are "some of the largest consumers of fast-food tacos and chalupas", said Lucas Benitez Comma, a leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Conditions for some farmworkers in Florida "are really no different from the conditions of Nike factory workers in Asia. The only difference is that we are here".

The offending taco ingredients are the tomatoes. Florida workers get 40-45 cents for filling a 14.5-kilogram bucket, working for a network of growers whose main customer is the fast-food giant. To make US$50 in one day, a worker must pick almost 2 tonnes of tomatoes (120 buckets; one every four minutes).

Pickers would like to see Taco Bell pay growers an additional 2 cents a kilo. If that were passed on to workers, it would double their wages. Even if Taco Bell passes labour costs onto the finished product, at the cash register, consumers would notice little difference.

Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Tricon Corp, makes US$5.2 billion in sales annually, a quarter of its parent corporation's gross receipts. "Their tremendous revenues are based on cheap ingredients, including cheap tomatoes picked at sub-poverty wages", said Benitez. "We are tired of subsidising Taco Bell's profits with our poverty."

Immokalee, in the middle of the everglades, feels more like a labour reserve than a town. It's an unincorporated area where the farmworker population nearly doubles to 30,000 during the harvest season.

"Every day here, thousands of people wake up at 4 am to beg for a day's work in the central parking lot in town", Benitez explained. "And every Friday, they get cheques from three or four different companies. No company has a fixed work force. There are only the changing faces of Immokalee workers picking and planting every day."

Three decades ago, when Edward R. Murrow produced Harvest of Shame, the celebrated expose of semi-slave conditions among Florida farmworkers, the state's tomato pickers were African Americans and black immigrants from the Caribbean. While Haitians still make up a significant percentage of that work force, most Immokalee residents today are from Mexico and Guatemala.

But the plight of farmworkers has changed little since Murrow's television documentary. According to a US Department of Labor report to Congress last year, farmworkers everywhere in the US are at the bottom of the economic heap. Florida pickers are among the poorest.

In the past five years, the CIW has provided the Florida Department of Justice documentation of three slavery operations. One south-west Florida employer cited held more than 400 people in bondage, forcing them to work 10- to 12-hour days, six days a week, for as little as US$20 a day. Armed guards stood watch in the fields and the camps where pickers lived.

In 1997, that employer was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. Another labour "contractor" is serving three years for holding 30 workers in two trailers in a swamp near Immokalee. The CIW's anti-slavery program is investigating a third case.

The US south is a region of few unions and low wages, but grassroots organising projects are spreading rapidly. In the eyes of many traditional trade unions, the new southern workers — immigrant agricultural labourers, who often don't speak English — are difficult or impossible to organise.

But for Benitez and the CIW, the immigrant status of the Immokalee work force is an advantage to organisers, who use popular education techniques that have become part of the culture of social justice movements in Central America and the Caribbean. Many workers can't read, but movies, popular theatre, cartoons and drawings help them recognise their situation and participate in changing it.

This spring, the CIW took two busloads of its members on a "Taco Bell Truth Tour", which culminated in a demonstration of 2000 workers and supporters outside the company's office tower in Irvine, in California's Orange County.

Taco Bell maintains that it is not responsible for the work conditions of tomato pickers since it doesn't employ them directly. Nevertheless, company representatives met with Benitez and other CIW activists.

From Green Left Weekly, July 17, 2002.
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