And now a word of good news from the world of fast food.
Last month, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group that represents farm workers in southern Florida, announced that it was ending a four-year boycott of Taco Bell. The most remarkable thing about the announcement was the reason behind it: Taco Bell had acceded to all of the coalition's demands. At a time of declining union membership, failed organizing drives and public apathy about poverty, a group of immigrant tomato pickers had persuaded an enormous fast food company - Yum Brands, which in addition to Taco Bell owns KFC, Pizza Hut, A&W All American Food Restaurants and Long John Silver's - to increase the wages of migrant workers and impose a tough code of conduct on Florida tomato suppliers. "Human rights are universal," said Jonathan Blum, a senior vice president of Yum, adding that under Taco Bell's new labor rules "indentured servitude by suppliers is strictly forbidden."
The need for a corporate edict against slavery in the United States reveals just how bad things have become for farm workers. But it also suggests that the fast food companies now sitting atop America's food system can prevent the sort of abuses that state and federal officials seem unwilling to address.
Migrant farm workers have long been the nation's poorest group of workers. Although wages and working conditions greatly improved during the 1970's, thanks to the efforts of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, the rise of illegal immigration and anti-union sentiment later eroded those gains. In California, where more than half of America's fruits and vegetables are grown (and mainly picked by hand), the hourly wages of some farm workers adjusted for inflation have fallen by more than 50 percent since 1980.
Today the majority of America's farm workers are illegal immigrants. They often live in run-down trailers, sheds, garages and motels, where a dozen or so may share a room. Their status as black market labor makes them fearful of being deported, wary of union organizers and vulnerable to exploitation. The typical migrant farm worker is a young Mexican male who earns less than $8,000 a year.
The working conditions in the fields of Florida are especially bad. According to a recent study by the Urban Institute, perhaps 80 percent of the migrants in Florida are illegal immigrants. They are usually employed by labor contractors, who charge them for food, housing, transportation - and, on occasion, smuggling fees. These charges are often deducted from workers' paychecks, trapping migrants in debt. Since 1996, six cases of involuntary servitude have resulted in convictions in Florida; many others have probably gone undetected. In one of these cases, hundreds of farm workers were held captive by labor contractors based in La Belle and Immokalee, Fla., forced to work without pay and warned that their tongues would be cut off if they tried to escape. The Florida legislature has done little to help migrants. Agriculture is the state's second-largest industry, after tourism, and many legislators have close ties with leading growers.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is one of the few organizations willing to fight for migrant workers in Florida. Founded in 1996 and based in the town of Immokalee, amid lush tomato fields and citrus groves, the group helped the United States Justice Department gain convictions in five of the six slavery cases. During the late 1990's members of the coalition learned that Taco Bell was a major purchaser of tomatoes grown in Immokalee, where the wages of migrants (adjusted for inflation) had fallen by as much as 60 percent during the previous two decades. The coalition asked the fast food chain to pressure its Florida suppliers, seeking a wage increase and guarantees that human rights would be respected. When Taco Bell failed to respond, the coalition started a nationwide boycott in April 2001, focusing its efforts at high schools and college campuses. "Boot the Bell!" was the rallying cry, as students tried to close Taco Bells and block the opening of new ones.
At first Taco Bell tried to ignore the protests and to deny responsibility for the behavior of its suppliers. "We don't believe it's our place to get involved in another company's labor dispute," Jonathan Blum, the Yum Brands executive, said in an interview with The New Yorker. Asked about the possible link between slavery in Florida and Taco Bell's food, Mr. Blum replied, "It's heinous, but I don't think it has anything to do with us." The company's attitude gradually changed as the boycott gained support not only from students, but also from the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the National Council of Churches, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights and former President Jimmy Carter, among others. (Disclosure: I supported the boycott, too, and spoke out on behalf of the coalition.)
With coalition members conducting hunger strikes and staging demonstrations in front of Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, Calif., it seemed increasingly unwise for the nation's leading purveyor of Mexican food to be publicly linked with the exploitation of poor Mexicans. And the coalition's wage demand was by no means outrageous. It was asking for a pay raise of one penny for every pound of tomatoes picked - the first major wage increase in Immokalee since the late 1970's.
As part of the agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers last month, Taco Bell vowed to help "improve working and pay conditions for farm workers in the Florida tomato fields." It promised to give the penny per pound increase to its Florida suppliers, so that migrant wages could be raised by that amount. It invited the coalition to monitor the new labor policies. And it said it would reward those suppliers that treat farm workers well. The penny-per-pound supplement will nearly double the wages of migrants picking tomatoes for Taco Bell. And though there is some debate about the final cost to Yum Brands, the figure will most likely be a few hundred thousand dollars a year - not a huge sum for a fast food company with annual sales of about $9 billion worldwide.
Over the past few years the fast food industry has introduced healthier foods in response to consumer demands. It has adopted tough animal welfare policies in the wake of criticism from animal rights activists. The Taco Bell agreement demonstrates, for the first time, an industry commitment to farm workers' rights in the United States. Only a small number of tomato pickers will enjoy a wage increase as a result of the Taco Bell deal, but it's a step on the right path.
And what's the next step? Although farmers are often demonized in reports about migrant labor, it's important to point out that they are under tremendous pressure from the leading fast food chains to reduce costs. Food-service companies now purchase the majority of fresh produce in the United States - and farmers often believe that cutting wages is necessary to cut prices for their largest customers. Meaningful change, therefore, will have to come from the top.
McDonald's seems an obvious target for the next boycott. It is one of the nation's leading purchasers of lettuce, tomatoes, apples and pickled cucumbers. It is far and away the industry giant. The failure of government to protect the weakest and most impoverished workers in the United States has left the job to corporations and consumers. Taco Bell deserves credit for acknowledging its responsibility on this issue. Now McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Yum's other brands need to do the same.
Eric Schlosser is the author of "Fast Food Nation" and "Reefer Madness."
© 2005 New York Times, Co.