What Does Burger King Have to do with Modern Day Slavery in U.S. Agriculture?
Slavery and forced labor are universally condemned as amongst the most profound violations of human rights and dignity. Yet, modern day slavery is ongoing and systematic, including within the United States. In the last decade, there have been six federal government criminal prosecutions in Florida alone for forced labor and slavery of farmworkers resulting in up to 15 year prison terms and the freeing over 1000 workers. Farmworkers are amongst the poorest workers in the United States and have very few labor protections. The severe lack of protection for economic and social rights, in particular with regards to wages and work conditions enables the slavery crisis.
As part of addressing this human rights crisis, both Yum!Brands Inc. and McDonalds have entered agreements with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to pay an additional penny per pound for tomatoes and pass it on to the workers, as well as monitor for labor abuses. In public releases, Yum!Brands stated they felt compelled to enter into the agreement because “human rights are universal.”
Large consolidated buyers and retailers, such as McDonalds, Yum!Brands, Inc. and Burger King use their vast market power to obtain volume discounts and lower prices for produce. Growers then pass on the costs imposed on them to farmworkers. Unlike tractors and seeds, labor expenses as the only area where growers feel they are able to make significant cuts, and still obtain desperately poor workers to pick their crops. This reality has created an economic incentive for growers to, at best, exploit and, at worst, enslave workers. Growers normally contract out the dirty work to farm labor contractors who then have used forced labor and slavery as a way of cutting costs.
Consequently, it is large corporate purchasers’ that ultimately determine the human rights conditions faced by farmworkers. They are in the best position to help eradicate slavery by a simple change of policy or priority. Indeed, even small increases in price, if passed on to the workers, would significantly improve their economic and social rights situation. Moreover, they are also well positioned to impose human rights codes of conducts on suppliers.
Unlike other industry leaders, Burger King has not only been stubbornly resistant to working with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to address the human rights crisis, the company has taken every opportunity to ensure the continued impoverishment and abuse of these very low wage workers that must pick almost 2 tons of tomatoes to earn $50 in a day – such as claiming that the existing agreements violate anti-trust laws despite that the fact that two of New York City’s most prestigious firms –Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, LLP and Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP -- have done detailed analysis concluding that such an allegation has no legal merit.
As part of Burger King’s high profile press junket attacking the CIW, Andre Raghu, global managing director with the supply chain monitoring group “Intertek” that was hired by Burger King, told the readers of the Miami Herald on November 20, 1007 that his company’s audits of Florida tomato operations “have found no slave labor.” Intertek must conduct audits without much conversation with the community organizations made up of farmworkers, such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. But they should be re-thinking this approach, as something else happened on November 20, 2007 as well. According to court documents, three tomato pickers made their way to the Collier County Sheriff’s office after having escaped two days earlier through the ventilation hatch of a box truck where they had been held against their will by their employer. The three men told police of an Immokalee-based tomato harvesting slavery ring in which workers were beaten, chained, locked in box trucks, crates and sheds, and forced to work exclusively for the Navarrete family, according to an article entitled, “Family accused of enslaving workers at Immokalee camp” in the Naples Daily News (12/7/07).
What will Burger King and their “auditors” at Intertek have to say about this? Will they acknowledge that in pursuit of profit they are willingly blinding themselves as to whether the tomatoes they buy are picked by slave labor? Will they recognize that forced labor and slavery are driven by the economic structures, of which they are a part, that violate basic economic and social human rights?
The National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) promotes a human rights vision for the United States that ensures dignity and access to the basic resources needed for human development and civic participation.