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Taco Bell boycott, worker issues hit home in Florida (June 30, 2004)

Taco Bell boycott, worker issues hit home in Florida (June 30, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Taco Bell boycott, worker issues hit home in Florida

June 30, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0100}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

IMMOKALEE — Lucas Benitez starts his day as a tomato picker at 4 a.m., and he doesn’t stop until sundown.

The native of Mexico has been an agricultural worker in the United States for 11 years and earns less than 50 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes he picks. The average tomato worker must pick 125 buckets each day to earn $50 in one day. That equals two tons of tomatoes workers must pick to earn the minimum wage for a 10-hour day. The average tomato picker earns $5,000 to $7,500 per year and receives no overtime pay, health insurance, sick leave, paid holidays or vacation, pension, or the right to organize and join unions.

Those are the reasons Methodists Associated Representing the Cause of Hispanic Americans (MARCHA) brought a petition before delegates to the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh April 27-May 6 to boycott Taco Bell. It passed May 1.

Taco Bell is a major buyer of Florida tomatoes. It is part of YUM! Brands, along with Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver's and A&W Restaurants. The five chains together control more than 30,000 restaurants around the globe.

The United Methodist Church joins the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the United Church of Christ, the American Friends Service Committee and the National Council of Churches in the boycott.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is spearheading the Taco Bell boycott which began in April of 2001. The group has been organized in Immokalee since 1993 in an effort to modernize labor relations in Florida's fields, improve wages and working conditions for its members, and eliminate modern-day slavery.

Mary Silva, executive director of MARCHA, said the farm workers have been denied the rights given to other workers. She said the majority of farm workers are Hispanic and come to the United States for a better way of life and are treated worse here than in their native country.

“We are very, very happy delegates passed the resolution,” she said from her office in San Marcos, Texas. “This is a human rights issue about unjust pay and treatment. The workers are not covered by labor law or any organization. The workers are not being taken care of properly.”

Benitez, a volunteer with CIW, said he could seek work in other areas, but he wants to stay and make the job better for those who are working in the field now and in the future.

“I could go work for a hotel, but there are people who fought to make that job better for people today in terms of wages and benefits and conditions,” he said. “I can improve conditions in this one, too.”

Benitez received the “Rolling Stone” magazine Brick Award as America’s Best Young Leader for fighting for tomato worker rights. He helped organize the first ever general strike in Immokalee history, with 3,000 workers staying out of the fields for a full week. He has testified in Congress on the effects of free trade on the working poor and had his testimony featured in Shafted: Free Trade and America’s Working Poor. He also received the 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.

While receiving the awards has been an honor, Benitez is seeking change for fellow workers in the fields. “Agricultural work is honest, dignified work that deserves respect,” Benitez said. “If we don’t do what we do, there’s no food on millions of tables in homes and restaurants across the country.”

According to Cecil Howell the working conditions surrounding the majority of the Immokalee tomato farming industry are not as bad as CIW would like people to believe.

IMMOKALEE — Cecil Howell, a member of First United Methodist here, stands next to a tractor on his Immokalee tomato farm. He has been farming tomatoes since 1979 and produces 300 acres of tomatoes in both the spring and fall. Howell is against the Taco Bell boycott because he says not all tomato farmers treat their workers badly and many provide at least minimum wage. Photo courtesy of Cecil Howell, Photo #04-0037.

Howell, a member of First United Methodist Church, Immokalee, has been growing tomatoes in here since 1979. His farm produces 300 acres of tomatoes in both the spring and fall. He said the 150 to 200 Mexicans and Guatemalans who pick tomatoes on his farm earn $6.25 per hour and are guaranteed $50 for eight hours, plus a dime a bucket for working from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Howell said very few farms use “piece work” or paying people simply by the number of buckets they pick. He said more and more farmers are turning away from piece work, yet CIW and mainstream media outlets continue to focus on the minority of piece work farms.

“I’ve really been upset by the boycott. Most of my farming buddies are Christian guys, as well as me, and here we are being blamed for having slave labor, and it’s not like that here in Immokalee. We have documentation after documentation about what we’re doing. We’re too regulated,” Howell said. “We’re constantly having the state and federal guys coming out here to check on us. They check on payrolls. If a worker is working piece work, the computer system we use automatically pays them minimum wage.”

Pay is not the only issue, according to CIW and others. Benitez said he helped workers escape from a labor camp in Lake Placid.

Howell said he wants nothing to do with rogue labor leaders who run labor camps. He said he strictly abides by the Worker Protection Act and labor laws, posts daily spray records of pesticides to notify workers when they can re-enter the fields, and works hard to be more than fair to his employees.

Some of the workers just aren’t being honest and are over-exaggerating the hours they work, Howell said. “Our season is only half a year. They are making things look a certain way,” he said. “There are a lot of guys trying to get attention. They are going to these churches, and churches are listening to their side. They are not coming to the farmer and letting the farmers tell our side.”

Benitez said many of the 10,000 agricultural workers find it difficult to live off the annual farm worker salary, yet do not seek public assistance. He said Taco Bell could nearly double the picking rate paid to farm workers by agreeing to pay just one penny more per pound for the tomatoes it buys from Florida growers.

“We aren’t focused on the growers,” he said. “We want the buyers to be responsible so workers can earn a dignified wage.”

While not focused on the growers, Howell said the boycott stings just the same. “It hurts me in the heart,” he said.

The Rev. Margaret Benson, pastor of First United Methodist, Immokalee, said the church’s time would be better spent putting effort behind changing trade regulations, rather than just focusing on Taco Bell or Yum! Brands because that’s not the total tomato market.

“I believe what the coalition is asking for is too simplistic of an approach. I don’t think that’s the total answer,” Benson said. “It’s such a complicated issue. I don’t know what good the boycott is really going to do.”

The Rev. Dr. Marta Jan Burke, pastor of Fulford United Methodist Church, Miami, said she supports the Taco Bell boycott because CIW and the South Florida Interfaith Committee are concerned with worker justice issues, as was John Wesley.

“John Wesley was concerned with quality of life issues,” she said. “There are people sitting in our pews that are farm workers. I can’t ask my members to tithe if they don’t have wages they can live on. As part of our Methodist heritage, we need to be concerned with body, mind and spirit.”

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This article relates to the 2004 General Conference and Church and Society.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.