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Bush's Bogus Guestworker Program | The Nation

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Peter Rothberg

Peter Rothberg

Opposing war, racism, sexism, climate change, economic injustice and high-stakes testing.

Bush's Bogus Guestworker Program

President Bush recently invited Latino immigration activists and the press to the White House to hear him unveil an important policy initiative. The President said that US immigration policy "is not working" and proposed an ambitious new approach he said would better "reflect the American Dream."

But, following the President's speech, John Alger, an agricultural employer in Homestead, Florida, told USA Today that he welcomed the initiative, saying, "To have a sustainable, low-cost labor force is crucial to us."

So, what's this new proposal about? Shoring up the American Dream? Or ensuring a low-wage labor pool for commercial interests?

For a terrific explanation, check out a recent statement issued by the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW), which calls the guestworker proposal "damaging to the very people it purports to help," and argues that the initiative is designed to "give US industry legal, taxpayer-assisted access to millions of desperately poor workers outside US borders." Click here to read and circulate this valuable report.

The CIW is a community-based worker organization composed largely of Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian immigrants laboring in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida. Established in 1977 to advocate for tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida's largest farming community, the CIW's main activity currently is coordinating activities to improve working conditions and to raise these workers' pay.

But, 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 worker representatives. (Why should they when they've been able to keep wages stagnant since the 1970s?)

In late 2001, the CIW launched a national boycott against Taco Bell, one of the largest buyers of tomatoes in the region and, together with Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver's, and A&W Restaurants, part of a corporate group forming the "world's largest restaurant system."

Farm-workers who pick for Florida growers like Six L's Packing Company, Taco Bell's chief supplier, earn roughly forty cents for every thirty-two pound bucket of tomatoes--the same piece rate paid in 1978. At this rate, workers must pick and haul two TONS of tomatoes, a tough task, to make fifty dollars a day.

Workers are denied the right to organize and the right to overtime pay. They receive no health insurance, no sick leave, no paid holidays, no vacation, and no pension. Given the sheer volume of Immokalee tomatoes it buys, not to mention its size and economic strength, Taco Bell has the power to help bring about more modern, more equitable labor relations in Immokalee's tomato fields.

To date, the company has refused to take any responsibility whatsoever for the sweatshop conditions in the fields where its tomatoes are picked. Taco Bell executives have even refused to speak to delegations of workers who have requested meetings.

But, according to critics, Taco Bell could nearly double the picking piece rate paid to farm-workers by agreeing to pay just one penny more per pound for the tomatoes it buys from Florida growers. As CIW says: "We believe that Taco Bell, as part of the 'world's largest restaurant system' can easily afford to pay one penny more. But even if they passed the cost on to YOU, the consumer, it would still be less than 1/4 of 1 cent more for your chalupa." Not a bad deal.

Until Taco Bell and its local growers are forced to concede, the CIW's excellent website makes it easy for you to help. First, get informed. CIW offers a concise explanation of the boycott, and the CIW Listserve keeps you in touch with the campaign as it evolves.

Then, if you're interested in bringing the Taco Bell boycott to your community, contact the Student/Farm-Worker Alliance or the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for more information and materials that you can use for organizing in your area, including media packets, postcards, flyers, bumper-stickers and other resources.

You can also sign a petition, send an email to Emil Brolick, Taco Bell's CEO, download a poster or contribute money to help CIW expand its efforts.

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