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LOCAL News :: Labor

Down With the King, Up With Justice! Fair Food Now!

Around noon on April 12, almost 60 people gathered in Lawrence, Kansas to voice a resounding NO! to the exploitation of farmworkers in the fields of South Florida and to conditions of modern day slavery. Protesters gathered in front of the Memorial Union at the University of Kansas, where they marched, biked, danced and sang through campus towards the Burger King restaurant on the corner of 23rd Street and Naismith Drive. They demonstrated in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers's national campaign against Burger King's unjust treatment of tomato pickers.
The king lorded over a symbolic tomato patch for the almost two mile route towards the BK restaurant, which is located on one of the most populated streets in the city. Protestors soon dethroned him for his lies, wrapping him in tomato vines so he couldn't escape and forcing him to listen to the workers' demands. This act appropriates BK's popular advertising campaign and represents an end to exploitation at the hands of industry giants and a move towards fair food and for justice. In the space opened by the fallen king, representatives from communities of faith, workers from Immokalee and students took climbed the throne to share strong and inspiring words that stressed how farmworker empowerment, empathy, and community solidarity are all crucial to this struggle.


Farmworkers in Florida's fields are still compensated by a piece-rate pay system that hasn't changed significantly in nearly 30 years. Even when work is available (job stability is never guaranteed of course) workers face extremely long hours without overtime pay. There have been multiple documented cases of physical abuse and wage fraud by crewleaders, supervisors, and growers, not to mention the damage to body and soul workers face without even the most decent employment benefits, such as sick days, paid leave, health insurance, or pensions. Farmworkers suffer at the hands of this corporate greed all without the right to protest or organize, as U.S. labor laws do not permit labor organization of agricultural workers, and are often retaliated against when they attempt to speak out against these injustices. The most shocking thing is that there have been six successful federal prosecutions that have referred to these conditions as Modern Day Slavery, with the seventh recently initiated. These cases involve well over 1,000 workers and more than a dozen farm employees.

Elizabeth Schulte describes one such case in an April 12th article published by Counter Punch:

"[Workers] were made to pay $20 for "housing"--a locked van where they had to defecate in the corner--as well as $50 a week for food and $5 to take a shower in the backyard with a garden hose...Earning just 45 cents for every bucket of tomatoes they picked in the blistering Florida sun for some 12 hours a day, the men were in perpetual debt to their captors. And the fear of deportation made defying the men who held them seem even more impossible. Any identifying documents they once had were locked away."

It is illegal in the U.S. to pay workers so low and treat them so unfairly, but as a large, multinational corporation, Burger King is able to use its high-volume purchasing power to extract the lowest prices possible from the distributors, which in turn creates these miserable conditions. Recent campaigns pressured Taco Bell and McDonald's to bring workers to the negotiating table. But Burger King refuses, placing it in the uncomfortable position of being the current target of the CIW's campaign. Burger King has not only refused to join Yum! Brands and McDonalds in working with the CIW to improve labor conditions, but it has actually sought to reverse gains made by workers in agreements with those corporations. This is possible because Burger King works with lobbyist groups that penalize growers $100,000 each time they open their books, which hold the names of workers who are to receive the increases in salary that came as a result of earlier negotiations. Because the growers are the only ones who know the workers, the pickers do not get paid the increase for which they fought so hard to receive.

What does CIW want?

The CIW is calling specifically for Burger King to pay one penny more per pound for tomatoes and to ensure that the increase is passed on to the tomato pickers in the form of increased wages. Secondly, they call for Burger King and other food industry leaders to work with the CIW to establish and enforce a human rights-based code of conduct, including zero tolerance for forced labor, to ensure fair and safe working conditions. As for consumers, the CIW does not ask for pity. Instead they ask for consumers to recognize that their food comes at a high price: worker exploitation. In the end, the CIW is fighting for justice: fair wages and respect from bosses and the industries where they work. They march for better and cheaper housing, stronger laws and stronger enforcement against those who would violate worker's rights. And they push for the right to organize on their jobs without fear of retaliation, demanding an end to indentured servitude in the fields.

Burger King tells the media that workers can make up to $12 an hour, suggesting that pickers are wealthy and that they do not need to improve their conditions. However, this lie cannot cover up the fact that workers in Immokalee would have to pick over 2½ tons of tomatoes in a ten hour workday to earn Florida’s minimum wage. Burger King's fabricated public relations campaign cannot obscure a work environment that can only be compared to a sweatshop. Burger King has resorted to lies and innuendos to turn the public relation tide their way. However, with growing pressure stemming from the CIW's campaign and increasing solidarity across campuses and within communities across the U.S., it looks like the workers will soon have it their way.

For more information, readers may visit:

Coalition of Immokalee Workers: www.ciw-online.org/
Student Farmworker Alliance: www.sfalliance.org/

There is still time to show your support! Visit fairfoodnation.mayfirst.org/petition to sign the e-petition and put an end to modern day slavery!

In Lawrence, contact either smgorres (at) hotmail.com or ashley.dep (at) gmail.com to get more involved in local events.

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