Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Farmworker Victory: Blow Struck Against Slavery

Victories in battles over working conditions and pay are few and far between for America's farm workers -- or any workers -- these days. Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, has an op-ed in the NY Times today describing the victory of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers over Yum Brands, owner of Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, A&W All American Food Restaurants and Long John Silver. The victory was largely a result of a 4-year long boycott against Taco Bell, a major purchaser of tomatoes grown in Immokalee.

As Schlosser says, "the need for a corporate edict against slavery in the United States reveals just how bad things have become for farm workers."
Migrant farm workers have long been the nation's poorest group of workers. Although wages and working conditions greatly improved during the 1970's, thanks to the efforts of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, the rise of illegal immigration and anti-union sentiment later eroded those gains. In California, where more than half of America's fruits and vegetables are grown (and mainly picked by hand), the hourly wages of some farm workers adjusted for inflation have fallen by more than 50 percent since 1980.

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.
The boycott worked:
With coalition members conducting hunger strikes and staging demonstrations in front of Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, Calif., it seemed increasingly unwise for the nation's leading purveyor of Mexican food to be publicly linked with the exploitation of poor Mexicans. And the coalition's wage demand was by no means outrageous. It was asking for a pay raise of one penny for every pound of tomatoes picked - the first major wage increase in Immokalee since the late 1970's.
And that penny per pound -- which may cost the $9 billion corporation several hundred thousand dollars a year -- doubles the take-home pay of the migrant workers.

Schlosser also points out the underlying causes of the abuse, a system that bears similarities to the way Wal-Mart relates to its suppliers:
Although farmers are often demonized in reports about migrant labor, it's important to point out that they are under tremendous pressure from the leading fast food chains to reduce costs. Food-service companies now purchase the majority of fresh produce in the United States - and farmers often believe that cutting wages is necessary to cut prices for their largest customers. Meaningful change, therefore, will have to come from the top.
And where, you might ask, have the federal and state goverments been while this abuse has been going on? Ignoring the problem and weakening workers rights and the agencies that are supposed to enforce them.

According to Schlosser:
The failure of government to protect the weakest and most impoverished workers in the United States has left the job to corporations and consumers. Taco Bell deserves credit for acknowledging its responsibility on this issue. Now McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Yum's other brands need to do the same.
And in addition to corporations and consumers, let's not forget to give some credit to the workers themselves and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. With the turmoil and hand-wringing embroiling the labor movement these days, the lessons of this victory of the weakest over the strongest shouldn't be overlooked: First, creative organizing can overcome the greatest obstacles. And second, while the debate rages over the role of health and safety in the labor movement, don't underestimate the power of working conditions as an organizing tool.

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