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Taco Bell Target Of Nationwide Farm Worker Protest

by Virmarie Ruiz

A worker must pick two tons of tomatoes to earn $50
(IPS) NEW YORK -- Florida tomato pickers, earning below minimum wages, are targeting the global fast food chain Taco Bell over its contracts with suppliers that fail to pay a living wage.

Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are employed by Six-L's Packing Co, Inc., the largest producer of tomatoes in Florida and a supplier for Taco Bell.

Unsuccessful in their efforts to negotiate with Six-L's, the coalition hopes to embarrass the fast food chain into supporting their demands for a wage increase.

A boycott of Taco Bell has been going on in Florida since April. The coalition says the campaign will be stepped up with a national tour of protests in front of Taco Bell restaurants starting Sept. 13.

Taco Bell says it has no responsibility for the laborers' complaints.

"Our policy is not to interfere with other companies' labor disputes," says Taco Bell spokesperson Laurie Gannon. "We don't set prices for labor. This is not about Taco Bell. I have no idea about their labor issues. It is unfortunate. But they are targeting Taco Bell because we're nationally (recognized). We don't set prices for labor and tomatoes."

Matt Leber, a community organizer working with the Coalition, disagrees. "Taco Bell is creating a demand for unskilled labor. It can be a leader. Taco Bell can really dictate how workers are being paid by saying, 'We will only give out our contracts to companies who pay a living wage'."

Taco Bell is part of the world's biggest conglomerate of chain restaurants, which includes Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. In 1999, Taco Bell alone reported $5.2 billion in sales. Taco Bell's parent corporation, Tricon Global Inc., earned $22 billion that year.

The Immokalee workers' wages have remained stagnant since 1978. They are paid 40 to 45 cents for every 32 pounds of tomatoes they pick. At this rate, a worker must pick two tons of tomatoes to earn $50 a day.

The workers say they have no benefits, no insurance, no vacations, and no overtime pay. Their average income is $7,500 to $9,000 per year.

In January 2000, the coalition sent Taco Bell a letter asking to meet management and seeking support to negotiate an increase in their wages. After a year, a second letter was sent. When there was still no response, the boycott began April 1 this year.

Taco Bell pays 34 cents for every pound of tomatoes it buys. The coalition's request is that the company pay Six-L's an extra cent for every pound. It estimates that this will raise their wages from 40-45 cents to 75-80 cents.

Lucas Benitez, co-director of the Coalition of Immokalee workers, says, "Six-L's provides tomatoes around the year for a cheap price. (But Taco Bell gets this) cheap price thanks to the exploitation of farm workers."

Coalition members are primarily of Hispanic, Haitian, and Mayan Indian descent and many are undocumented workers, making it even more difficult for them to enforce their rights.

The boycott campaign has spread to college campuses, including the University of Florida, the University of Wisconsin, and Notre Dame University, where students have taken part in rallies. Protests have been held in cities including Los Angeles, California; Miami and Orlando, Florida; and Auburn, Alabama.

The "Taco Bell Truth Tour" is the centerpiece of the boycott campaign. The Sep. 13-24 tour will start in Immokalee, Florida and travel through seven cities across the country. It culminates at Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California, after stopping in eight cities across the country.

Participants will include farm workers, labor leaders, the clergy, and student groups, says Dana Silverman, an organizer with United for a Fair Economy, a group that supports and publicizes economic justice campaigns nationwide.

"Right now there's a situation where service sector and other workers are being pushed into lower and lower jobs," Silverman says. Farm workers are legally entitled to engage in collective bargaining with their employers, she notes, but are exempted from many other federal labor protections.

"Since Taco Bell subcontracts out to other companies, they can say they have no responsibility for wages or working conditions," she adds. "But if they are the ones buying, (they should) pay a living wage."

The U.S. Department of Labor reported earlier this year that three out five farm worker households in the United States live in poverty, and that half of all farm workers earn less than $7,500 per year.

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Albion Monitor September 10, 2001 (

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