Oxfam, CIW celebrate Burger King's promise of a wage hike

By Coco McCabe
In order to make just $50 in a day, tomato pickers must pick and haul 125 buckets.

A penny's worth of justice: That's all Florida tomato pickers were asking Burger King for. Last week, they finally got it.

Almost a year after the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or CIW, launched its campaign to get the fast food giant to join McDonald's and Yum! Brands in paying field hands in their supply chain a penny more for every pound of tomatoes they picked, Burger King relented.

On Friday—along with an apology for negative statements its employees made about CIW—the restaurant chain announced its plan to work with the coalition to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato harvesters.

For Burger King, a multi-billion-dollar corporation, the deal reportedly costs it just $300,000 a year. But for farm workers, who earn an average of 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick, that penny represents a near doubling of their wages.

"Today we are one step closer to building a world where we, as farm workers, can enjoy a fair wage and humane working conditions in exchange for the hard and essential work we do every day," said CIW's Lucas Benitez in a press statement. "We are not there yet but we are getting there and this agreement should send a strong message to the rest of the restaurant and supermarket industry: Now is the time to join Yum! Brands, McDonald's, and Burger King in righting the wrongs that have been allowed to linger in Florida's fields for far too long."

37,000 petitioners

For Oxfam America, which has long partnered with CIW and launched an on-line petition on its behalf, the agreement is proof that consumer pressure can bring about positive change. More than 37,000 people signed the petition calling on Burger King to work with CIW to improve the wages of farm laborers and enforce a code of conduct for human rights in the field.

"It once again proves these seemingly almighty corporations have to respond to consumer pressure," said Guadalupe Gamboa, and Oxfam program officer working with CIW. "Consumers want farm workers treated fairly and getting a just wage. And they want global corporations held responsible for acts of injustice in the supply chain."

Burger King got that message loud and clear—not only from fast food fans, but from an array of global activists concerned about the conditions in the hot Florida fields.

"We engaged Burger King at the highest levels," said Gamboa. "Oxfam America's president, Ray Offenheiser, sent a series of letters to the CEO of Burger King. The company also started to get letters from Oxfam affiliates in other countries. And Oxfam partner organizations in Mexico started to get active around the issue, too."

Role of growers' group?

The agreement Burger King has endorsed goes beyond the penny-per-pound increase CIW and consumer activists around the country sought. It also aims to encourage the broad participation of growers by paying them a half cent extra per pound of tomatoes. That money will help them cover the additional payroll taxes and administrative costs associated with the wage hike.

"Today, we turn a new page in our relationship and begin a new chapter of real progress for Florida farm workers," said John Chidsey, Burger King's chief executive officer, in a prepared statement. "We also encourage other purchases and growers of Florida tomatoes to engage in a dialogue."

Whether that will happen is still unclear. In November, the Florida Growers Exchange, which represents producers who grow about 90 percent of the state's tomatoes, announced that its members had chosen not to participate in any pact in which a third party set wages for their employees. Reggie Brown, the executive vice president of the exchange, said he was concerned about the legality of the arrangement and its potential for violating anti-trust and racketeering laws. According to CIW, the exchange even threatened to fine members $100,000 if they participated in the penny-per-pound plan.

Brown was out of the country and not available for comment following Burger King's announcement. But maintaining its earlier position on the wage hike will likely be difficult for the exchange.

"We're sure the Florida tomato growers are decent, hardworking people who want to see the industry prosper," said Gamboa. "I think it's going to be harder for the exchange to hold the growers in line because the extra money they will get—the half cent which averages out to 16 cents for each buck of tomatoes—will allow them to participate in the wage hike without incurring extra costs."

And it's not just the growers—exchange that might find it hard to hold back the rising tide of justice. It could start to improve the conditions for workers at the bottom of every food supply chain.

"We are exuberant about this," said Gamboa. "We're probably at the tipping point. When you get three major fast food companies agreeing to accept responsibility for improving wages and working conditions, it sets a very important precedent that other food buyers and retailers will have to follow. It says that getting decent pay and respect on the job is a basic human right."

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