It took four years for Taco Bell's parent company to agree to demands that the restaurant take responsibility for the wages and working conditions of migrant laborers who pick its tomatoes. It took another two years for McDonald's to accept a similar deal.
Last week, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida farmworker-run group, claimed victory in its long-fought campaign to force McDonald's to pay just one cent more per pound of tomatoes, a raise that will be passed directly on to pickers. The restaurant giant negotiated a contract with the CIW just days before the coalition planned to announce a boycott during actions at the fast-food giant's Oak Brook, Illinois headquarters last weekend.
Now, the coalition says Burger King must come to the negotiating table before the end of the year or face a boycott. Once McDonald's conceded, the Immokalee workers and their supporters didn't waste any time jump starting the Burger King campaign, switching the focus of a rally and carnaval in Chicago on April 14 from "Ronaldo" McDonald to "El Rey" – "The King."
At a welcome dinner held the group's first night in Chicago, featuring a pre-ordered cake decorated with stumbling plastic clowns, Coalition supporters couldn't help breaking out with the chant "Ronaldo se cayó" – "Ronald has fallen." As reported by The NewStandard in 2005, McDonald's had previously infuriated the Coalition by signing onto an industry-originated voluntary certification program called Socially Accountable Farm Employer (SAFE), considered toothless by workers' advocates.
During performances by local and national musicians at the Immokalee carnaval April 14, attendees waved a paper-maché crown and taunted Burger King.
Company representatives have so far refused to pay the one cent raise for tomato-pickers. Burger King spokesperson Keva Silversmith told TNS the company has no control over tomato pickers' wages and working conditions, since it does not employ them directly, but buys tomatoes from suppliers. "We have no channel where we can directly influence the workers' wages," Silversmith said
That argument rings hollow, however, since Taco Bell's parent company Yum Brands, which signed an agreement with the CIW in March 2005, and McDonald's also buy their tomatoes through third parties. As part of their agreements, the companies are developing independent monitoring programs to make sure the raise is enforced and that a workers' rights code of conduct is followed.
Burger King has offered to stop buying from suppliers if the CIW proves they are violating federal labor law. US laws, however, offer few protections for farmworkers. Unlike workers in other most other industries, farmworkers are not guaranteed the legal right to overtime pay or collective bargaining.
Silversmith said Burger King had also offered to train the immigrants for jobs in its restaurants. "We've definitely been open to recruiting Immokalee workers into the Burger King system," Silversmith said. "We have a variety of positions open in restaurants and in the corporate office in Miami. We're not sure how the skills would overlap, but we're trying to have a positive and constructive dialogue."
But Coalition members are generally uninterested in fast-food restaurant jobs.
"We're not unemployed," said CIW farmworker and executive director Lucas Benitez. "We want dignity and we want them to take responsibility for the conditions we work in the fields."
The raise of one penny per pound would boost workers' wages by more than 70 percent, from about 45 to 77 cents per bushel. Under contracts negotiated with Yum Brands and McDonalds, workers will make about $96 per day, while under contracts with Burger King, they will still make $56 for the same weight – 4,000 pounds of tomatoes.
Emanuel, 18, came to Immokalee, Florida from Oaxaca, Mexico a year and a half ago. As the workers packed up for their trip back to Florida after the Chicago events, he said the wages under Burger King's contract are not enough to pay for rent, food and family needs. "That's why we're fighting for that one cent more," he said in Spanish. "It will make a real difference. We also need them to respect our rights."
His fellow Oaxacan, Francisco Venegas, 33, also interviewed in Spanish, said other migrant workers used to think the Coalition was "crazy," but now the Coalition is well-known and widely-supported, with achievements including the two major corporate agreements, scores of local protests to combat labor abuses, weekly meetings and a low-power radio station.
"[McDonald's] had to come to the table because they knew we were going to win," Venegas said. "Now, Burger King."
Durango, Mexico native Francisco Aragon said he has seen definite changes in working conditions in the 15 years he has been traveling back and forth between Immokalee, where the tomato season wraps up by May, and Chicago, where he sells popsicles from a cart during the summer. "We get much more respect," he said in Spanish.
Coalition supporters held rallies at several Chicago-area Burger Kings on April 13, the day they had planned to picket McDonald's corporate headquarters. McDonald's did not respond to requests for an interview.
"McDonald's and Taco Bell aren't the whole fast food world," Benitez told the crowd at the carnaval, which was held in a concert venue because of the weather. "Today we are sending a message to Miami," Benitez added, referring to the city where Burger King is headquartered.
Invoking his personal hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Benitez said Coalition members would "walk like he would like to have seen us do, united toward a promised land."
"Right now that promised land is Miami," he continued. "We're not going there to sunbathe, we're going to get justice. When we're all together, those giants are afraid of us."
This is purely disgusting! i do not understand how those so selflabelled "animal lovers" can support such things. This is seriously making me sick. & the worse is they believe they are doing good things & many are hoping to reach freedom for non humans. How do they seriously think it's possible keeping them as resources?
BURGER KING SHIFTS POLICY ON ANIMALS By Andrew Martin, The New York Times
March 28 - In what animal welfare advocates are describing as a "historic advance," Burger King, the world's second-largest hamburger chain, said yesterday that it would begin buying eggs and pork from suppliers that did not confine their animals in cages and crates.
The company said that it would also favor suppliers of chickens that use gas, or "controlled-
atmospheric stunning," rather than electric shocks to knock birds unconscious before slaughter. It is considered a more humane method, though only a handful of slaughterhouses use it.
The goal for the next few months, Burger King said is for 2 percent of its eggs to be "cage free," and for 10 percent of its pork to come from farms that allow sows to move around inside pens, rather than being confined to crates. The company said those percentages would rise as more farmers shift to these methods and more competitively priced supplies become available.
While Burger King's initial goals may be modest, food marketing experts and animal welfare advocates said yesterday that the shift would put pressure on other restaurant and food companies to adopt similar practices.
"I think the whole area of social responsibility, social consciousness, is becoming much more important to the consumer," said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm. "I think that the industry is going to see that it's an increasing imperative to get on that bandwagon."
Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said Burger King's initiatives put it ahead of its competitors in terms of animal welfare.
"That's an important trigger for reform throughout the entire industry," Mr. Pacelle said.
Burger King's announcement is the latest success for animal welfare advocates, who were once dismissed as fringe groups, but are increasingly gaining mainstream victories.
Last week, the celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck announced that the meat and eggs he used would come from animals raised under strict animal welfare codes. And in January, the world's largest pork processor, Smithfield Foods, said it would phase out confinement of pigs in metal crates over the next decade.
Some city and state governments have banned restaurants from serving foie gras and have prohibited farmers from confining veal calves and pigs in crates.
Temple Grandin, an animal science professor at Colorado State University, said Smithfield's decision to abandon crates for pregnant sows had roiled the pork industry. That decision was brought about in part by questions from big customers like McDonald's, the world's largest hamburger chain, about its confinement practices.
"When the big boys move, it makes the entire industry move," said Ms. Grandin, who serves on the animal welfare task forces for several food companies, including McDonald's and Burger King. Burger King's decision is somewhat at odds with the rebellious, politically incorrect image it has cultivated in recent years.
Its commercials deride "chick food" and encourage a more-is-more approach to eating with its turbo-strength coffee, its enormous omelet sandwich, and a triple Whopper with cheese.
Burger King officials said the move was driven by their desire to stay ahead of consumer trends and to encourage farmers to move into more humane egg and meat production.
"We want to be doing things long before they become a concern for consumers," said Steven Grover, vice president for food safety, quality assurance and regulatory compliance. "Like a hockey player, we want to be there before the puck gets there."
Mr. Grover said the company would not use the animal welfare initiatives in its marketing. "I don't think it's something that goes to our core business," he said.
Beef cows were not included in the new animal welfare guidelines because, unlike most laying hens and pigs, they continue to be raised outdoors. Burger King already has animal welfare standards for cow slaughter, he said.
The changes were made after discussions with the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA.
PETA, in particular, has started a series of high-profile campaigns to pressure fast-food companies to change their animal welfare practices, including a "Murder King" campaign that ended in 2001 when Burger King agreed to improve its animal welfare standards to include, among other things, periodic animal welfare audits.
Since that time, PETA officials said they had met periodically with Burger King officials to encourage them to adopt tougher standards. About a year ago, the Humane Society began its own efforts to encourage Burger King to improve its farm animal standards.
Mr. Grover said his company listened to suggestions from both groups, but ultimately relied on the advice of its animal welfare advisory board, which was created about six years ago and includes academics, an animal welfare advocate, an executive of Tyson Foods and Burger King officials.
"Where we think we can support what our animal advisers think is right, we do it," Mr. Grover said.
The changes apply to Burger King suppliers in North America and Canada, where the chain purchases more than 40 million pounds of eggs a year and 35 million pounds of pork, he said.
A reason that such a small percentage of purchases will meet the new guidelines is a lack of supply, Mr. Grover said. Burger King plans to more than double its cage-free purchases by the end of this year, to 5 percent of the total, and will also double its purchases of pork from producers who do not use crates, to 20 percent.
The cage-free eggs and crate-free pork will cost more, although it is not clear exactly how much because Burger King is still negotiating prices, Mr. Grover said. Prices of food at Burger King restaurants will not be increased as a result, he said.
Most laying hens in the United States are raised in "battery cages," which are usually stacked on top of each other three to four cages high. Sows, during their pregnancies, are often kept in gestation crates, which are 24 inches across and 7 feet long.
Matt Prescott, PETA's manager for factory farm campaigns, argued that both confinement systems were filthy and cruel because the animals could barely move and were prone to injury and psychological stress.
Under Burger King's initiative, laying hens would be raised in buildings where they would be able to wander around. Similarly, sows would be raised indoors, most likely in pens where they would be able to move freely.
"This is not free range, but simply having some room to move around inside a controlled environment, " Mr. Grover said.
While converting barns for crate-free sows is relatively simple, Ms. Grandin said it was much more difficult and expensive to raisecage-free hens because not nearly as many birds fit in one building.
Burger King officials say they hope that by promoting controlled-atmosphe re stunning, more slaughterhouses will adopt the technology. Currently, there are only a few in the United States using the technique, and most of them process turkeys.
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