'Slavery, Plain and Simple'

By Jordan Buckley 1-29-2008

Nothing has exposed the severe ethical troubles of the world´s second largest burger chain quite so lucidly as a slave break in Florida´s tomato country in November.

Burger King, under fire for turning a blind eye to the rampant human rights abuses in the fields where they buy their tomatoes, decided to react. But in lieu of taking responsibility for the conditions, like McDonald´s, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell have in recent years, Burger King opted to deny that farmworker enslavement and sub-poverty wages exist.

In mid-November, Burger King led a high profile press tour through Immokalee, Fla – the epicenter of our nation´s fresh tomato production and home to the award-winning farmworker group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

The CIW has unearthed, investigated, and assisted federal officials in prosecuting five forced labor operations in Florida agriculture in the last decade alone – resulting in the liberation of more than 1,000 people. By working together with people of faith across the country, the CIW has persuaded a number of major fast food restaurants to sign on to codes of conduct that establish a zero-tolerance policy for modern-day slavery.

Yet on Nov. 20, a so-called independent auditor accompanying Burger King on its press junket through Immokalee was quoted in the Miami Herald dismissing the CIW´s accusations of widespread abuse, stating: “We have found no slave labor.”

The very same day, Nov. 20, a report was filed with the Sheriff´s office in Immokalee by three men – all of them tomato pickers – who had broken through the ventilation hatch of a U-haul truck their employers had locked them in and escaped. Earlier this month, their employers were indicted in federal court on charges of indentured servitude and peonage.

U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy called the operation – which, interestingly, was situated just three blocks from where Burger King was hosting its press tour – “slavery, plain and simple.”

Why does slavery still exist? Slavery flourishes in U.S. agriculture because the everyday reality of sweatshop conditions provides the fertile soil that enable it to sprout, time and time again.

Farmworkers are among the least paid workers in the nation; to make $50 in a day, a worker must pick nearly two tons of tomatoes one-by-one. The back-breaking work they perform – without any benefits whatsoever – beneath a brutal sun (and at times a brutal crewleader) makes possible the food that nourishes our families and ourselves.

Until we fix a system that allows exploitation to be the norm, we´d be amiss to assume that the most extreme forms of that exploitation – human enslavement – will just vanish.

As such, Burger King would do well to carefully examine James 5:4 :

Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord.

So too have these cries reached the ears of the Lord´s followers – accordingly, Burger King must and will be guided down the path toward justice.

Jordan Buckley works with Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida (interfaithact.org), animating people of faith to collaborate with farmworkers to eliminate modern-day slavery and sweatshop conditions in the U.S. agriculture industry.

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