Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, has a powerful op ed in today’s New York Times on Burger King’s role in ensuring that migrant farm workers receive sub-minimum wages.
The migrant farm workers who harvest tomatoes in South Florida have one of the nation’s most backbreaking jobs. For 10 to 12 hours a day, they pick tomatoes by hand, earning a piece-rate of about 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket. During a typical day each migrant picks, carries and unloads two tons of tomatoes. For their efforts, this holiday season many of them are about to get a 40 percent pay cut.
Schlosser writes that Taco Bell and McDonald’s have agreed to increase the wages of its tomato pickers to about 77 cents per bucket. “But Burger King, whose headquarters are in Florida, has adamantly refused to pay the extra penny — and its refusal has encouraged tomato growers to cancel the deals already struck with Taco Bell and McDonald’s.”
The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange [representing 90% of the state’s growers] has threatened a fine of $100,000 for any grower who accepts an extra penny per pound for migrant wages. The organization claims that such a surcharge would violate “federal and state laws related to antitrust, labor and racketeering.” It has not explained how that extra penny would break those laws; nor has it explained why other surcharges routinely imposed by the growers (for things like higher fuel costs) are perfectly legal.
Burger King tries to pretend it has no role in this outrage, but it is actually central to the dispute. If Burger King went along with Taco Bell and McDonald’s, the growers would have little ability to insist on these outrageously low wages.
The prominent role that Burger King has played in rescinding the pay raise offers a spectacle of yuletide greed worthy of Charles Dickens. Burger King has justified its behavior by claiming that it has no control over the labor practices of its suppliers. “Florida growers have a right to run their businesses how they see fit,” a Burger King spokesman told The St. Petersburg Times.
Yet the company has adopted a far more activist approach when the issue is the well-being of livestock. In March, Burger King announced strict new rules on how its meatpacking suppliers should treat chickens and hogs. As for human rights abuses, Burger King has suggested that if the poor farm workers of southern Florida need more money, they should apply for jobs at its restaurants.
This holiday season, do something to help a farm worker family: don’t eat at Burger King.