Student groups to McD's: "Our patience is all but exhausted"

March 28, 2007

Mr. Jim Skinner, CEO
McDonald's Corporation
McDonald's Plaza
Oak Brook, IL 60523

Mr. Skinner:

It has been nearly a year without response since we wrote you concerning the dire human rights crisis in the fields of Florida and the link between McDonald's purchasing practices and the extreme poverty and degradation faced by thousands of women and men who harvest tomatoes for your sandwiches and salads. We are writing today to tell you that, as national student organizations representing tens of thousands of influential young consumers, our patience is all but exhausted.

Instead of partnering with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) – an internationally recognized, award
winning organization with unparalleled expertise in the field of advancing Florida farmworkers' human rights – McDonald's has continued to opt for the low road, wasting invaluable time and resources in an unsuccessful bid to persuade concerned consumers that the company's actions are in line with principles of social responsibility.

Meanwhile, the human rights crisis in Florida's fields – and, by extension, McDonald's supply chain – steadily worsens. According to the Florida Tomato Committee, "Florida produces virtually the entire fresh market of field-grown tomatoes in the United States from December through May each year, and accounts for about 50 percent of all of the domestically produced fresh tomatoes in the United States each year." The well-documented conditions under which these tomatoes are harvested include:

  • Sub-poverty wages – On average, tomato pickers earn $10,000 per year;

  • No raise in nearly 30 years – Pickers are paid virtually the same per bucket piece rate today as they
    were in 1980 (roughly 45 cents per 32 lb. bucket). At today's rate, workers must pick nearly 21/2 tons of tomatoes to just earn minimum wage for a typical 10-hour day;

  • Denied fundamental labor rights – Florida farmworkers have no right to overtime pay, even when
    working 60-70 hour weeks, and no right to organize or bargain collectively;

  • Modern-day slavery – In the most extreme cases, workers face conditions that meet the strict legal
    standards for prosecution under modern-day slavery statutes. In collaboration with the CIW, federal civil rights officials have prosecuted five slavery operations, involving over 1,000 workers in Florida's fields since 1997. One federal prosecutor called Florida "ground zero for modern-day slavery."

In 2005, after a four-year national boycott, the CIW reached a historic agreement with Taco Bell to address the ever-deepening poverty of farmworkers in Florida. Within weeks, McDonald's launched its own campaign to undermine the two key principles established in the accord – namely, the involvement of farmworkers themselves in the protection and advancement of their own labor rights, and immediate economic relief in the form of a penny-per-pound surcharge directly improving farmworker wages.

On the issue of wages, and as an alternative to the Taco Bell surcharge, McDonald's has taken the untenable position that tomato pickers actually aren't poor and therefore don't need a raise, even financing a study to support that very conclusion. Before the ink could dry, this study was discredited to the hilt by dozens of leading legal, labor, and social research scholars, including former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. One analysis called the study, "so riddled with errors both large and small that it cannot be accepted as factually accurate on virtually any measure." Another scholar concluded, "there is no way this would have survived a Master's degree defense. The result is misinformation, and no policy decision should rest in any part on this study."

As an alternative to Taco Bell's enforceable code of conduct, which was developed and implemented with
farmworker participation through the CIW, McDonald's teamed with lobbyists from the Florida Fruit and
Vegetable Association (FFVA) to roll out an employer-controlled monitoring program called "SAFE."
Predictably, this has done little to improve conditions for farmworkers. Since its creation, a key supplier of
McDonald's grape tomatoes, Ag-Mart, has repeatedly made headlines for labor abuse ranging from alleged
systematic minimum wage violations to the hiring of a convicted slaver to recruit and supervise workers.

On top of that, former FFVA chairman Frank Johns was named numerous times, although not charged, in the federal indictment of his longtime crewleader, Ron Evans. Evans was charged with keeping his workers in what prosecutors called "a form of servitude." Earlier this year, Evans received a 30-year sentence for recruiting workers from homeless shelters across Florida and holding them in debt peonage through a combination of low wages and charges for everything from rent to crack cocaine. Johns publicly defended Evans "as an above average crewleader."

The simple fact is this: Florida's agricultural employers – many of them your company's suppliers and "partners" in social responsibility – have a long and disreputable track record of farm labor abuse, a record that has only grown worse since the launching of SAFE. They are, in short, the very foxes that have been raiding the henhouse for years.

This fact has doomed your company's employer-controlled approach to social responsibility to failure from the start. Credibility is absolutely essential to the success of any social responsibility strategy. Yet as long as your partners have no credibility whatsoever when it comes to the protection of their workers' rights and welfare, the SAFE code of conduct will have no credibility in the eyes of the public. And as a consequence, McDonald's still has no credible mechanism to guarantee consumers that its products are in fact free of forced labor.

In summary, McDonald's actions since the announcement of the Taco Bell agreement have not only proven to be a dismal failure by any objective measure, but have actually been destructive, serving to undermine farmworkers' fragile gains and to give comfort to growers who, for the first time in decades, were under pressure to institute real labor reforms in the wake of that historic agreement. Instead, McDonald's has actually managed to embolden growers determined to thwart progress.

As a result of your actions, your company now stands on the brink of a protracted conflict. Your only exit is to
work directly with the CIW to ensure fairer wages and real rights for farmworkers. We firmly believe these
changes are inevitable. The question is simply how long will it take McDonald's and others in the food industry to respond to the growing voice of farmworkers and consumers.

Two years ago, McDonald's chief marketing officer told the Nation's Restaurant News that, “Our new sweet spot is 18- to 24-year-olds.” Yet students and young people were on the front lines of the four-year Taco Bell Boycott on hundreds of campuses and communities throughout the country.

If your company does not change its current course and work with the CIW to address farmworkers'
unconscionably low wages and inhumane working conditions, what is today your sweet spot will soon become McDonald's sore spot. Do not underestimate our tenacity or the proven strength of our alliance with Florida's farmworkers.

Sincerely,

Student/Farmworker Alliance
United Students Against Sweatshops
United States Student Association
Student Labor Action Project
National Latino/a Law Student Association
United Students for Fair Trade
Student Action with Farmworkers
Student Environmental Action Coalition
Living Wage Action Coalition

cc: Bob Langert, McDonald's, Vice President of Social Responsibility

 

PO Box 603, Immokalee, FL 34143 :: (239) 657-8311 :: organize (at) sfalliance.org