WASHINGTON - The world's largest fast-food company, appropriately named Yum! Brands, is being pressed by consumers and human rights groups to ensure that the rights of mostly immigrant farm workers who pick its tomatoes in Florida and elsewhere to safe working conditions and reasonable wages are fully respected.
In a new report released Monday in Immokalee, Florida, Oxfam America charged that the plight of many of the farm workers who harvest tomatoes in nearby fields amounts to indentured servitude and that Yum!, which buys the crop from local growers, has a responsibility to halt such exploitative practices.
"Companies must take responsibility for worker rights in their supply chains and respect core labor standards that protect workers from these abuses," said Ray Offenheiser, Oxfam's executive director.
He was joined at Monday's release by Bishop Hoyt of the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCC), former UN Commissioner for Human Rights and President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and Lucas Benitez, who heads the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).
The report is part of a global campaign by Oxfam to put pressure on retailers and buyers to ensure that the basic rights of workers who toil at the lowest rungs of the chain are respected, whether they are found in apparel assembly plants in South Asia and Central America or in the fields where fresh produce is picked in Chile or the United States.
Increasingly, according to Oxfam, today's globalized economy is characterized by powerful corporations at the top of the product supply chain. "These massive, highly consolidated and vertically-integrated corporations are able to extract value from the supply chain by squeezing costs and offloading responsibility onto those below them--their shippers and suppliers."
Suppliers, in turn, try to extract greater value from producers, while producers--with very few variable costs they can cut--"squeeze their labor force," resulting in declining wages and deteriorating work and living conditions.
Farm workers, often undocumented immigrants, are the easiest to squeeze in this situation, according to Oxfam which noted that the wage levels, working environment, and social conditions for farm workers in the United States remain virtually unchanged from where they stood close to 50 years ago, and, in some areas, such as parts of Florida, they have actually deteriorated.
The new study, 'Like Machines in the Fields: Workers Without Rights in American Agriculture,' shows that big buyers, like fast-food companies, have used their marketing power to buy increasing volumes of produce at increasingly cheaper prices.
The result has been devastating to small growers and farm workers alike. With Florida tomatoes already under severe pressure due to imports from Mexico, the price paid to producers has fallen by some 21 percent in real terms over the past 20 years. They have responded by cutting back on their labor costs, mostly by sharply reducing full-time workers and hiring more temporary immigrant workers through labor contractors.
Ultimately, farm workers suffer the most, often finding themselves forced to work just in order repay contractors. The piece rate paid to Florida tomato pickers, who must now harvest two tons of produce in order to earn US$50 a day, for example, has dropped by almost two- thirds over the last 25 years, according to the report, despite a 50 percent increase in the price consumers pay for tomatoes since 1992.
"Supply chain management has become tight as a whip," according to the report. "Value is passed up the chain, while workers at the bottom pay the price."
The report highlights the plight of Florida's tomato workers, but the same trends are evident throughout the fresh-produce industry in the United States, according to the report.
Since it learned in 1999 that California-based Taco Bell was a major buyer of tomatoes grown in the region around Immokalee, the CIW has pressed the company to demand that its suppliers raise wages and protect farm workers from abuse. When the company failed to respond, CIW launched a nationwide boycott in 2001.
In response to such pressure, Yum! Brands, whose ownership of Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), Long John Silvers, A&W, as well as Taco Bell, recently adopted a code of conduct requiring its suppliers to respect all local and federal law and prohibiting them from producing "goods using labor under any form of indentured servitude."
The problem, however, is that the company puts the obligation for monitoring and enforcing the code on its suppliers, rather than on itself--yet another example of the corporation at the top of the chain sloughing off responsibilities onto a lower link to avoid additional costs for itself.
"The vow is admirable," according to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, who, however, noted in a recent article that Yum! apparently gives higher priority to its responsibility for ensuring the welfare of the animals whose meat it buys than for that of the farm workers who pick the 40 million pounds of tomatoes it buys each year. In a separate code, the company says it will monitor its suppliers "on an ongoing basis to determine whether (they) are using humane procedures for caring for and handling animals they supply to us."
"The company must now show the same level of concern for the humane treatment of human beings," Schlosser wrote.
The ongoing boycott of Taco Bell has been endorsed by student groups, organized labor, and the NCC. Last November, three CIW members received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
The boycott goal is a wage increase of one cent for every pound picked by a migrant workers. That would leave wages lower than they were 25 years ago, according to Schlosser, but it would substantially increase current incomes.
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