Burger King and Modern Day Abolitionists Face Off

CIW Protest

"We are building an alliance of workers and consumers today in the U.S. to demand fair food and an end to slavery in its modern-day form," declared Lucas Benitez as he accepted the 2007 Anti-Slavery Award at a gala ceremony in London last week.

Burger King Protest

"In the tradition of the abolitionist movement here in Great Britain, where consumers and workers joined to demand sugar free of the scourge of slavery and so helped bring an end to the slave trade, we are building an alliance of workers and consumers today in the U.S. to demand fair food and an end to slavery in its modern-day form," declared Lucas Benitez as he accepted the 2007 Anti-Slavery Award at a gala ceremony in London last week.

Benitez is a founding member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community organization based in rural southwest Florida fighting for respect and dignity for thousands of migrant farmworkers who cycle through the region every year. Due to its year-round growing season, over 90% of the fresh tomatoes consumed in the U.S. during winter come from Florida. Although it has just five traffic lights, the unincorporated town of Immokalee is a major agricultural hub for the entire state. Its harvests attract a steady stream of low-wage workers primarily from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti.

The CIW accepted the award on the bicentennial anniversary of a milestone in British abolitionist history – the passage of the 1807 Slave Trade Act. Founded over two hundred years ago, Anti-Slavery International is the world’s oldest international human rights organization, and its award is presented annually to groups and individuals fighting human bondage. The London-based organization chose to honor the CIW for "their exceptional contribution towards tackling modern-day slavery in the U.S. agricultural industry."

"The CIW demonstrates what those at the cutting edge of the fight against slavery can achieve through their courage and commitment," explains Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International. "Their determination in demanding fast-food corporations take responsibility for labor practices throughout their supply chains reminds business, whether they like it or not, that they play a key role in ending this abuse and that they need to awaken to their responsibilities."

The abuse that McQuade describes is as deplorable as it is well-documented. The International Labor Organization conservatively estimates that twelve million people toil in forced labor worldwide, including six million children. In Florida, the CIW has partnered with the U.S. Department of Justice to uncover and prosecute six cases of modern-day slavery in the agricultural industry, resulting in the liberation of over 1,000 farmworkers from debt bondage. Far from hyperbole, these situations meet the high standard of proof and definition of slavery under U.S. federal laws as captive workers are often held by employers through threats or the actual use of violence – including pistol-whippings, beatings, and shootings.

Forced labor in the agricultural industry occurs along a spectrum of abuse that consistently denies farmworkers basic rights. Under federal and state law, for example, farmworkers are denied the right to form unions and collectively bargain, nor do the receive overtime pay or benefits of any kind. They earn sub-poverty annual wages that hover around $10,000 according to multi-year studies by the U.S. Department of Labor. These sweatshop conditions are the fertile ground that enable extreme forms of exploitation such as slavery to flourish.

A systemic solution to the scourge of slavery that lurks behind the food we eat lies with major food-buying corporations that profit from the artificially-low cost of produce picked by workers in the conditions described above. These incredibly wealthy corporations with household names have the opportunity and responsibility to leverage their vast resources and market influence as major produce buyers to finally eliminate slavery and other labor abuses in their supply chains.

Making this connection, the CIW launched its Campaign for Fair Food in 2001 to demand accountability from the multi-billion dollar fast-food chains that buy Florida tomatoes. After years of tenacious organizing, including a four-year national boycott of Taco Bell that was hard-fought on college campuses nationwide, the CIW won a landmark agreement with Yum Brands – parent company of Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, Long John Silvers and A&W – to improve wages and working conditions for the tomato pickers in its supply chain. Just seven months ago, McDonald’s agreed to a similar accord due to mounting consumer pressure.

Propelled by an alliance of farmworkers and consumers, a new day is dawning in Florida with the tangible possibility of a more humane future for the women and men who harvest our fruits and vegetables. Instead of joining this wave of progress, however, Burger King has chosen business as usual and is doing everything in its power to undermine the CIW’s advances. As more than a thousand farmworkers and consumers prepare to march on Burger King’s headquarters in Miami today, the company’s leadership would be well advised to reflect on the history of the British abolitionist movement and the perils of underestimating the power of an idea whose time has come.

Sean Sellers is member of the Student/Farmworker Alliance and a masters candidate at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.