MIAMI Farmworkers, union members and activists marched through city streets to Burger King headquarters Friday to protest low wages for tomato pickers and alleged exploitation of field workers.
About 300 to 400 protesters gathered under the skyscrapers of Miami's downtown, many wearing yellow T-shirts reading "Exploitation King" and "Burger King Exploits Farmworkers," others holding signs saying "Dignity" or "Justice for Tomato Pickers." The marchers, some strumming guitars and banging large tin cans with sticks, then began their 9-mile trek to Burger King's offices.
The protesters are pressuring the Miami-based fast-food giant to pay a penny more per pound for Florida tomatoes with their suppliers passing the money on directly to farmworkers.
Burger King has not accepted the deal. The company, owned by Burger King Holdings Inc., says it is willing to negotiate with the workers on a code of conduct for its vendors to prevent worker exploitation, but it sees no clear legal way to directly pay the workers. Tomato growers say it would be illegal to let outside groups set wages.
McDonald's Corp. and Taco Bell owner Yum Brands Inc. have reached similar agreements already with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who organized the march. But those deals are not currently in effect due to resistance from growers.
Pickers such as Sonia Lopez, 50, want better work conditions and higher wages. Many tomato pickers in the farming community of Immokalee, about 80 miles west of Miami, must toil in the dirt and hot sun for modest wages, living in cramped trailers with no overtime or health care. Most field workers are immigrants and are here illegally.
"We want just a penny (more) per pound, that's not a lot," Lopez, 50. "It will help our quality of life. It will help people make more money and be able to live a decent life, a better life. This affects all of us."
Florida supplies 80 percent of America's domestic fresh tomatoes between Thanksgiving and February. The agreements reached with McDonald's and Yum Brands were mostly symbolic, affecting only a tiny segment of Florida tomato pickers, but they paved the way for raising wages and strengthening farmworker rights across the industry.
Worker wages would essentially double if the McDonald's and Yum Brands deals are adopted industrywide. Yum Brands says it is still committed to the coalition, yet after two successful seasons, its suppliers opted out this year. McDonald's has yet to find any supplier who will participate but will continue to buy Florida tomatoes either way.