Ag-Mart, McDonald's and sweatshops in the fields

Palm Beach Post editorial (almost) says it all

Aug. 21, 2006 - A recent editorial in the Palm Beach Post correctly fingers Ag-Mart - a powerful Florida-based grower operating as far away as North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey - with neglect in protecting farmworkers from exposure to dangerous pesticides. The effects of these toxins on Florida's farmworkers and their families are as devastating as they are well-chronicled, including a damning investigative series that ran in the Post in 2005.

Importantly, the editorial makes the straightforward claim that "complaints from consumers and corporate buyers" - not enlightened good will or the threat of yet another round of litigation - is what will force a modicum of progressive change from firms such as Ag-Mart. Indeed, this is precisely what the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has argued since it launched its successful Taco Bell Boycott in 2001.

The CIW notes in an earlier report, "someone buys the tomatoes Ag-Mart produces." That someone - or rather, a very large "someone" - is McDonald's , as documented by Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA) activists in a piece published on AlterNet earlier this year.

And herein lies the connection: farmworkers' exposure to pesticides does not take place in a vacuum. Rather, it occurs along a continuum of systemic abuse that includes sub-poverty wages, sweatshop conditions, and - in the most extreme cases - modern-day slavery. The CIW insists that consumers and corporate buyers must play a crucial role in addressing the litany of abuses and injustices rampant in Florida agriculture.

In our 21st century economy -- with its globalized supply chains, layered sub-contracting, murky relationships, and minimal accountability - these abuses flourish, in large part due to "high-volume, low-cost purchasing practices" of large corporations such as McDonald's. The cheap produce they demand and the power they wield put an immense downward squeeze on farmworker wages and conditions. But this same power can be used strategically to improve conditions in the fields, if these corporations agree to work with the CIW and allow workers a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, as Taco Bell did last year.

Of course, these corporations won't easily agree to such a simple yet radical concept. Vested financial interests and a centuries-old code of agricultural power relations are formidable buffers against threats to the status quo. (As one grower famously remarked, "No tractor is going to tell a farmer how to run his farm.")

Enter the other player identified by the Post editorial -- the consumer. During the Taco Bell Boycott, students and young people chose to actively ally with the CIW, looking past marketing hype and to see the conditions in which the tomatoes in their food were picked and processed. Students kicked off or prevented 22 Taco Bell restaurants and sponsorships from their high school and college campuses to pressure the fast-food giant to agree to the demands put forth by the CIW, demands that have gone a long way to bring economic justice to farmworkers and much-needed transparency to the industry.

Today, the CIW and its allies call on McDonald's to take responsibility for the farmworker poverty that pads its billion-dollar profits.

As in the four-year Taco Bell Boycott, student and youth organizing will play a critical role in the campaign's overall success. After all, McDonald's newly revamped marketing strategy names 18- to 24- year-olds as the company's so-called "sweet spot." So while the Golden Arches continues its efforts to undermine the CIW and roll back the historic yet fragile gains of the Taco Bell Boycott, we will be turning McDonald's "sweet spot" into its sore spot.

The Post should be commended for pointing out the often-obscured connection between consumers, corporate purchasers, and growers. But as we have shown, there's much more to the story of Ag-Mart and sweatshops in the fields.

 

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