It’s tomato season in Immokalee, Florida. Today, like every other day, the tomato pickers will emerge from their trailers in the dark before dawn, and twelve hours later, they will return in the dark of the Florida night.
In the interval, the pickers will be picked up in battered trucks and shipped off to the fields. They will stoop and sweat to fill buckets with tomatoes, thirty-two pounds of them, for forty-five cents a bucket (the same piece rate, in real dollars, as in 1980). They will have to work fast and pick two tons today if they want to take home minimum wage.
The tomatoes will make their way to the growers, then to the vendors, then on to Whoppers and Happy Meals at fast food joints across the country. The money saved by paying poverty wages–or in extreme cases, nothing at all–will find its way into the profit margins of corporations like Burger King.
On November 30, the King’s corporate castle was under siege as the tomato pickers, most of them immigrant workers organized through the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), surged from the fields of Immokalee into the streets of Miami on a nine-mile march.
Their demands were simple: Pay a penny more per pound. Work with the CIW to end the abuse of workers. Zero tolerance for modern-day slavery in the fields.
And the farm workers weren’t alone. Hundreds of students, workers, clergy and allied activists marched with them, as they have since the birth of the Campaign for Fair Food in 2001–to “penny-per-pound” victories at Taco Bell in 2005 and McDonald’s last spring.
Marching, dancing, singing, shouting, pushing strollers, banging drums, bearing puppets of “the King” and cut-out buckets of tomatoes and flags inscribed with “Respect” and “Hope,” the 1,500-strong pageant against poverty paraded from the offices of BK co-owner Goldman Sachs to the King’s own 1 Whopper Way.
There, they delivered hundreds of worn work boots belonging to farmworkers who could not make it out of the fields that day. “Doubt our poverty?” they asked. “Walk in our shoes.”
Were BK executives to walk in their shoes, workers say, they would know that a penny more per pound–which would cost the company all of $250,000 a year–could mean the difference between their families getting fed or going hungry, getting care or going sick. It could mean the difference between the 1980 piece rate and a living wage for 2007, effectively doubling their daily pay,
The workers hold BK responsible for the difference: “Burger King has an active hand in creating these unconscionable conditions,” says CIW spokesman Lucas Benitez, “as its enormous purchasing power allows it to demand lower and lower prices, resulting in lower and lower wages.” Reports from Florida’s growers confirm the corporate connection.
A code of conduct and an independent monitoring system, as the CIW is also demanding, could in turn mean the difference between slavery and freedom for Florida’s most exploited workers, over 1,000 of whom have been found held against their will–often at gunpoint–in cases uncovered by the CIW and prosecuted over the last decade.