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First, They Took On Taco Bell. Now, the Fast-Food World
Published on Sunday, May 22, 2005 by the Associated Press
First, They Took On Taco Bell. Now, the Fast-Food World

IMMOKALEE, Fla. - Tejano music bounced off the one-story buildings of this farming town and the smell of tamales filled the air as scores of revelers danced into the night outside the headquarters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

The celebration marked a hard-fought, unlikely victory by the workers, a coalition of mostly Guatemalan and Mexican tomato pickers, over one of the nation's fast-food giants, Taco Bell.

They led a four-year boycott against the chain until it agreed in March to pay a penny more per pound for Florida tomatoes and to adopt a code of conduct that would allow Taco Bell to sever ties to suppliers who commit abuses against farmworkers.

With that triumph, the farmworkers group is turning to a larger target: the rest of the fast-food industry. The coalition has sent letters to executives at McDonald's, Subway and Burger King asking them to follow Taco Bell's lead.

"When we started this, it was like man going to the moon - nobody thought it was possible," said Lucas Benitez, a leader of the coalition. "With the help of people around the country, we have built a way to go to the moon. Now we must continue moving forward."

Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Yum Brands, based in Louisville, Ky., estimates it will pay the Florida tomato growers an extra $100,000 a year, a cost that company officials said would not be passed on to customers.

The fast-food chain, which buys 10 million pounds of Florida tomatoes a year, has also agreed to help the farmworkers persuade the other fast-food chains, and eventually supermarket retailers, to increase pay and monitor suppliers to make sure farmworkers are not held against their will, beaten or forced into indentured servitude.

"This is an industrywide approach to get all the growers on board, and then also get all the quick-food restaurants and retail supermarkets to join with us in that effort," said a Taco Bell spokeswoman, Laurie Schalow.

McDonald's says it already has a code of conduct for suppliers that prohibits forced labor and child labor, and demands that workers receive fair compensation.

A Burger King spokeswoman said the company's chairman had not read the coalition's letter, but she said that the chain also had a code of conduct for suppliers.

A spokeswoman for Subway said on Wednesday that the company could not immediately comment because it had only received the letter the previous day.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers formed a dozen years ago to help increase the wages of farmworkers, who earn as little as 40 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked, according to the group.

In the late 1990's, the coalition began investigating slavery cases in which farmworkers were being beaten and held against their will by labor contractors.

A coalition member, Romeo Ramirez, went undercover to help the authorities build a case, taking a job with labor contractors suspected of illegally detaining workers.

The coalition has helped investigate five slavery cases that have gone to trial and is in the middle of investigating three new cases in central and north Florida.

Mr. Benitez, Mr. Ramirez and Julia Gabriel, also a coalition member, received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2003 for investigating farmworker slavery.

© Copyright 2005 Associated Press


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