Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Taco Bell's Trajabadores

Eric Schlosser of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness fame has a good op-ed in today's NYTs. It seems Taco Bell's parent company, Yum Brands - which also owns Pizza Hut, KFC, among others - has agreed to pay the migrant workers that pick their tomatoes a penny more a pound, doubling their wages. Good news, but Schlosser goes on to document the continuing problem of indentured servitude among illegal immigrants.
Today the majority of America's farm workers are illegal immigrants. They often live in run-down trailers, sheds, garages and motels, where a dozen or so may share a room. Their status as black market labor makes them fearful of being deported, wary of union organizers and vulnerable to exploitation. The typical migrant farm worker is a young Mexican male who earns less than $8,000 a year.

The working conditions in the fields of Florida are especially bad. According to a recent study by the Urban Institute, perhaps 80 percent of the migrants in Florida are illegal immigrants. They are usually employed by labor contractors, who charge them for food, housing, transportation - and, on occasion, smuggling fees. These charges are often deducted from workers' paychecks, trapping migrants in debt. Since 1996, six cases of involuntary servitude have resulted in convictions in Florida; many others have probably gone undetected. In one of these cases, hundreds of farm workers were held captive by labor contractors based in La Belle and Immokalee, Fla., forced to work without pay and warned that their tongues would be cut off if they tried to escape. The Florida legislature has done little to help migrants. Agriculture is the state's second-largest industry, after tourism, and many legislators have close ties with leading growers.
What was documented by John Sayles's magnificient film, Matewan, survives into the 21st century. But as Schlosser's editorial points out, NGOs can successfully battle for change.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is one of the few organizations willing to fight for migrant workers in Florida. Founded in 1996 and based in the town of Immokalee, amid lush tomato fields and citrus groves, the group helped the United States Justice Department gain convictions in five of the six slavery cases. During the late 1990's members of the coalition learned that Taco Bell was a major purchaser of tomatoes grown in Immokalee, where the wages of migrants (adjusted for inflation) had fallen by as much as 60 percent during the previous two decades. The coalition asked the fast food chain to pressure its Florida suppliers, seeking a wage increase and guarantees that human rights would be respected. When Taco Bell failed to respond, the coalition started a nationwide boycott in April 2001, focusing its efforts at high schools and college campuses. "Boot the Bell!" was the rallying cry, as students tried to close Taco Bells and block the opening of new ones.
Yum Brands finally relented, with Jonathon Blum, a senior vice president at Yum, articulating this astonishing quote, "Human rights are universal, indentured servitude by suppliers is strictly forbidden."

Much like traditional service workers in the United States need to organize Wal-Mart, the next target for migrant worker advocates needs to be industry giant, McDonald's. As Schlosser notes, Mc-e-D's is "one of the nation's leading purchasers of lettuce, tomatoes, apples and pickled cucumbers."

These Davids of the field will need to super-size themselves to win that battle. To see what you can do, check out the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' website.