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United Methodists declare victory for farm workers

United Methodists declare victory for farm workers

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

United Methodists declare victory for farm workers

June 12, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0867}

NOTE: This article was produced and distributed June 11 by United Methodist News Service.

An e-Review Feature
By Kathy L. Gilbert**

United Methodists are celebrating a victory for farm workers following an agreement by Burger King Corporation to pay more for tomatoes picked by workers in Florida.

Workers harvest tomatoes at a farm in Immokalee, where low wages and poor conditions prompted farm worker advocates to lobby fast-food giant Burger King Corp. A May 23 agreement between Burger King and the farm workers will increase wages and protection to workers who have been subjected to abuse from growers. A UMNS photo by Scott Robertson. Photo #08-0893.

The second largest fast-food chain in the United States agreed to pay an extra 1.5 cents per pound for tomatoes picked in Florida. One penny of the increase will go for wages, and a half cent will fund incremental payroll taxes and administrative costs to encourage grower participation in the pact.

The May 23 agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers roughly doubles the earnings of the Florida workers. It also offers protection to farm workers who have been subjected to abuse from growers, according to Brigitte Gynther, Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida.

United Methodists in Florida have worked with both the coalition and Interfaith Action to bring about change for farm workers laboring in harsh conditions for as little as $50 a day.

The coalition already has similar agreements with McDonald’s Corp. and Taco Bell owner Yum Brands Inc. The United Methodist Church supported a boycott against Taco Bell that ended in March 2005 when the fast-food chain agreed to the one-cent increase.

‘Huge victory’

United Methodist leaders lauded the pact with Burger King.

Melinda Trotti, director of justice and spiritual formation ministries for the Florida Conference, presents petitions April 28 to the Miami headquarters of Burger King Corp. The petitions, signed by United Methodist Women, ask for improved working conditions for workers in Immokalee. A UMNS Photo by Brigitte Gynther. Photo #08-0894.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker commended Burger King for its pledge to be a leader in improving the working conditions of farm laborers.

“Many United Methodists have been praying for this outcome, and we shall share with others our appreciation for the leadership Burger King is demonstrating,” Whitaker said.

Melinda Trotti, director of justice and spiritual formation ministries for the Florida Conference, called the agreement a “huge victory.”

“I started crying when I heard the news,” she said. “You work hard and you don’t always get good news, but this is really good, big news.”

John Hill, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, said the agreement “marks another step in the march to justice for all workers.”

“Today, we celebrate the great work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in securing better working conditions and wages for the workers of Immokalee, Fla., and recommit our efforts to live into The United Methodist Church’s vision of a living wage in every industry,” Hill said.

Uvaldo Ruiz, a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, delivers a giant petition bearing 85,000 signatures to the Burger King headquarters April 28 in Miami. A UMNS photo courtesy of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida. Photo #08-0895.

The denomination’s social action agency signed a letter sent to Burger King’s corporate office in Miami calling for the penny increase, a code of conduct and a voice for farm workers in uncovering farm labor abuses.

Worker conditions

A congressional hearing held in April called for an investigation into farm worker conditions in Florida.

Gynther said there have been reports that workers have been locked in trucks and even chained at times.

“Instead of paychecks, their bosses would deduct for rent, food and $5 for showers with a garden hose,” she said. One case is currently under federal investigation using anti-slavery laws dating back to the Civil War.

In November 2007, thousands of people of faith brought more than 85,000 petitions to the Burger King headquarters. The march started with a prayer breakfast hosted by First United Methodist Church, Miami.

Trotti said many advocates for the farm workers are young people.

“These are really amazing young people who are working along side the workers,” she said. “They believe this is what you should do as a Christian. You should really take seriously Jesus’ call to take care of those who don't have their own voices. They are doing it and they are being successful.”

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.