BK draws more heat from tomato pickers’ group

MIAMI A group representing farm workers in southwestern Florida said it was delivering more than 70,000 petitions Monday afternoon to Burger King Corp.’s headquarters here to protest the chain’s refusal to join McDonald’s and Yum! Brands’ chains in paying an extra penny a pound for tomatoes.

The group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, has said the surcharge would be used to raise the wages and improve the living conditions of tomato pickers. However, Burger King has expressed concerns about paying additional wages to employees who don’t actually work for the company or the chain. Yet today the quick-service giant indicated that it may review its purchasing agreements as a “first step” toward resolving the issue.

The protest follows a report today in The News-Press of Fort Meyers, Fla., that linked Steve Grover, Burger King’s vice president of foodservice quality assurance and regulatory compliance, to anonymous attacks on the CIW via e-mail and online posts. The report alleged that Grover’s daughter, Shannon, confirmed her father is responsible for what the CIW has called “a series of anonymous and defamatory comments.”

Burger King, without addressing the allegations about Grover’s involvement, said in a statement that the comments do not reflect the chain’s desire to “find a way to assure decent wages and modern working conditions for the tomato harvesters in Immokalee.”  

“We have a robust vendor code of conduct which mandates zero tolerance for worker exploitation and abuse, and we are open to any responsible suggestions for improvement. As the Senate pursues the truth, we urge the CIW to immediately provide us with a copy of the Yum and McDonald’s agreements, repeatedly cited,” the statement said.  “Our ability to review the agreements is an important first step in bringing this issue to a resolution.”    

Burger King has repeatedly rebuffed the request to pay an additional penny a pound for tomatoes, saying it sees “no legal way of paying these workers” since it doesn’t actually employ them.

Yum was the first company to agree to the penny-per-pound charge, saying in 2005 — after boycotts by the CIW — that it would pay that amount for Taco Bell’s tomatoes. Last year it expanded the program to include tomatoes purchased for its Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver’s and A&W All-America brands. McDonald’s signed a similar agreement in 2007 following boycotts of its restaurants.

However, those agreements were thwarted when the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a growers’ cooperative, said its members refused to pass on the surcharge because of concerns about potential violations of antitrust, labor and racketeering laws.

Still, McDonald’s and Yum both said they stood by their agreements and that they would pay their part when the matter was settled.

Burger King consists of about 11,100 namesake restaurants.