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Taco Bell should help tomato pickers

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MAXWELL
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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002


IMMOKALEE -- We take advantage of their natural kindness and humility. We take advantage of their preference for silence. We take advantage of their love of family. We take advantage of their thriftiness. We take advantage of their immigration status. We take advantage of their ability to survive on next to nothing.

And, above all else, we take advantage of their proven work ethic.

Each time I visit this Collier County town, the nation's tomato capital, I am reminded of our abuse of farm workers and their families, of how we take advantage of them in every way.

The current national boycott of Taco Bell, jointly organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and other groups, illustrates the history of farm labor in Florida and other agricultural states. That history is a chronicle of human exploitation that states and the federal government sanction.

Some background on the Taco Bell boycott: Since 1977, tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida's largest farm-worker community, have been organizing for the right to merely talk with the state's tomato growers to improve farm-labor conditions and to raise the crop-picking piece rate. Despite signature drives, work stoppages, a 230-mile march across South Florida and a 30-day hunger strike by six coalition members, the growers still refuse to meet with farm-worker representatives. The main result, of course, is the piece rate has remained virtually the same since the 1970s. When inflation is added, wages have decreased.

After pickers learned that Taco Bell is a major buyer of tomatoes they harvest, they informed company executives two years ago of the low wages and deplorable in the fields. Coalition representatives requested a meeting with Taco Bell executives but were turned away.

"The tomatoes Taco Bell buys for its tacos are produced in what can be described as sweatshop conditions," said Lucas Benitez, a coalition worker and an organizer of the national boycott. "Twenty years of picking at sub-poverty wages, no right to overtime pay, no right to organize or join a union, no health insurance, no sick leave, no paid holidays and no pension is a national disgrace. We as farm workers are tired of subsidizing Taco Bell's profits with our poverty."'

The coalition wants Taco Bell to use its muscle to invite tomato growers to start meaningful talks with pickers. The organization also wants the taco giant to voluntarily pay 1 cent more per pound for its tomatoes. The current price is about 40 cents per pound. If growers would then pay that penny to the pickers, wages would jump to a livable level.

"With this simple move," a coalition organizer said, "a chain reaction of positive things would occur. "The cost to consumers would be less than one half-cent for each taco. The owners would gain a stable, motivated work force, and Taco Bell would get a public relations bonanza by being seen as an ethical company."

Romeo Ramirez, another coalition leader, points out the bitter irony of Taco Bell's refusal to help pickers: "Recently, we read in Nation's Restaurant News (a trade publication) that the major fast-food chains are getting together to draft requirements for their meat suppliers that set guidelines for the humane treatment of farm animals.

"If Taco Bell and other fast-food giants can require their suppliers to treat farm animals humanely, they should be able to understand our call for humane working conditions for farm workers."

No such luck.

At this writing, Taco Bell officials apparently do not intend to draft guidelines for the humane treatment of farm workers.

In time, and I certainly hope that I am right, Taco Bell will regret its refusal to champion farm-worker rights as did Nike and other conglomerates that initially ignored the rights of their workers. Using highly effective protests, the nation's college students brought negative attention to Nike's sweatshop working conditions in Third World countries. Nike made sea changes after the protests turned into public relations nightmares.

I am thrilled that college students in Florida and elsewhere are adopting the cause of the nation's tomato pickers. During the last three weeks I spoke to two classes at the University of Tampa that have made farm-worker issues their research assignments. Some plan to join the boycotts. At the University of Florida, I spoke to a new campus organization that has aligned with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

The coalition recruited hundreds of student protesters on at least 10 other Florida campuses during a recent tour.

Beginning this Thursday, a caravan of migrant workers, activists and college students will embark from Tampa on a 15-city, national bus tour to raise awareness about Taco Bell's imprimatur on sweatshop conditions in the nation's tomato fields.

Anyone who has paid attention knows that when college students take up a righteous cause and agitate in large numbers, things happen in a hurry. Besides supporting human misery, Taco Bell should worry that the 18-to-24-year-old age group (college-age students) is its target market.

Increasing numbers of students are joining the cause. Taco Bell, one of the nation's biggest users of tomatoes, should do the right thing and sit down with protesters. Why become another Nike? Why face the wrath of angry consumers?

Why not voluntarily take the moral high road and stop taking advantage of tomato pickers?

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