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Can Taco Bell's Guarantee that Forced Labor Did Not Pick the Tomatoes in its Chalupas?

by IMCer on the scene Wednesday, Mar. 05, 2003 at 1:44 AM

A note from CIW on Day 8 of the Farmworkers' Hunger Strike outside Taco Bell world Headquarters in Irvine, CA

March 3, 2003

HUNGER STRIKERS ASK:

“Can Taco Bell guarantee its customers that the tomatoes in its chalupas were not picked by forced labor?”

IRVINE, CA -- Following the discovery and federal prosecution of six cases of modern-day slavery in the past five years in South Florida agriculture -- three involving tomato pickers -- the hunger strikers outside of Taco Bell headquarters are asking: “What mechanisms does Taco Bell have in place to guarantee to its customers that the tomatoes in their chalupas were not picked by workers in modern-day slavery conditions.”

In an April, 1999, story in the “Naples (FL) Daily News,” entitled, “Alleged Collier slavery ring not the first,” the issue of multiple slavery operations in Southwest

Florida agriculture was the subject:

“’We weren’t allowed to leave, and we were afraid they would kill us if we tried to escape,’ said Guzman [a victim of forced labor in an earlier case], who had

been recruited in Immokalee..., ‘I couldn’t believe it when I saw this morning that it’s happened here again.’ Federal agents arrested three Immokalee labor bosses Wednesday on charges of enslaving 28 Mexican nationals, among them seven teen-agers... (who) allegedly were sold into slavery at ,000 a piece, to work in agricultural fields in Lee and Collier counties.”

The workers in the 1999 case picked tomatoes for Manley Farms, where Ronnie Rose, the farm manager, commented in the same article, “We have no

knowledge of any slavery or anything of this nature. It’s hard to believe. I’m shocked. I’m stunned, and if any part of it is true, I’m sad.” The crewleaders

involved ultimately pled guilty to several charges, including conspiracy to hold workers in peonage (holding workers against their will in involuntary servitude in order to collect a debt) and unsafe labor practices.

Lucas Benitez of the CIW wrote in the CIW’s latest letter to Taco Bell CEO Emil Brolick, “[The] fast-food giants cannot possibly guarantee their customers that

the tomatoes and other produce in their products are free of forced labor, or that basic human rights are respected everywhere along their supply chain. To

claim otherwise would be a transparent fraud, when the industry’s own suppliers claim ignorance of slavery -- slavery confirmed in US federal court --

right under their noses. If Manley Farms (or others) are to be believed when they claim no knowledge of slavery in its fields, then it is simply impossible

that any buyer, or potential buyer, further along the distribution chain could ethically claim that its products were not picked by slave labor.”

As the Naples Daily News wrote, “arrests and allegations of forced labor in Immokalee fields are hardly uncommon” (“Four men charged with running

slavery ring in Immokalee,” 4/29/99). And while such cases clearly represent an extreme form of labor exploitation in Florida’s tomato fields, sweatshop-like

conditions -- sub-poverty wages, no right to organize, no right to overtime pay, no health insurance, pension, holiday leave, sick leave, or vacation -- are the

everyday reality for the farmworkers who pick a significant percentage of tomatoes that go into Taco Bell’s products.

The CIW’s letter to Taco Bell continued, “From sweatshops to slavery, the conditions in Florida’s tomato fields have been a scandal since the epochal

Edward R. Murrow documentary “The Harvest of Shame.” Yet the US foodservice industry that relies on Florida for its fruit and vegetable supplies

has done nothing to improve labor conditions along its supply chain, not even so much as issue a statement of concern for the workers at the foundation of the

industry.

[BACKGROUND: Farmworkers outside of Taco Bell headquarters -- encamped 24 hours a day on Von Karman in Irvine -- have entered the second week of

their hunger strike. The workers (members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida-based workers’ rights organization) are calling on

Taco Bell to take responsibility for the sweatshop conditions in Florida’s fields where the fast-food giant buys its tomatoes. They have been joined by students,

religious leaders, and small farmers who have come from across the country in solidarity with the fasting farmworkers, in one of the largest hunger strikes in

US history. On Friday, Feb. 28, more than a thousand supporters thronged to the site of the strike for a rally in support of the strikers. Eric Schlosser, author of

“Fast Food Nation” was a featured speaker at the rally.]

The national Boot the Bell campaign, spearheaded by the Student-Farmworker Alliance in support of the boycott, has successfully organized on 14 high

schools and universities to remove already-existing Taco Bells or block Taco Bells from coming on campus. Currently, students are organizing similar

campaigns on over 40 campuses across the country. Fifty students nationwide fasted for a week in solidarity with the hunger strikers.

Day 8 of Farmworkers hunger strike outside Taco Bell’s world headquarters, Irvine, CA

Contact: Coalition of Immokalee Workers, (239) 821-5481; (323) 387-0344, (239) 839-3970; (239) 503-0133, 239-634-4229;

website: www.ciw-online.org

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