MIAMI Burger King has refused a request from a farmworkers’ group to pay a penny-per-pound surcharge on tomatoes to fund a welfare program for Florida tomato pickers.
The group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, convinced Taco Bell parent YUM! Brands Inc. in 2005 to pay the surcharge, with the benefits going directly to farmworkers. The agreement followed a four-year CIW-led boycott of Taco Bell by religious, student and labor groups across the country.
The groups have shifted the pressure to McDonald’s and other fast-food chains. The CIW is planning a rally in support of the surcharge at the Oak Brook, Ill. headquarters of franchisor McDonald’s Corp. in April.
Burger King officials said they met during the past two years with representatives of the CIW and religious groups. The chain’s executives also visited Immokalee, Fla., to view working conditions for farmworkers firsthand. Florida produces about 95 percent of the nation’s winter tomato crop.
While Burger King agreed that living conditions for tomato pickers are substandard, officials said they did not believe the penny-per-pound surcharge would guarantee direct support for the workers. Through purchasing arm RSI, the chain buys tomatoes from re-packers and has no direct relationship with growers, and therefore cannot control how farmworkers are compensated, officials said in a statement.
Burger King also cited a controversial study on farmworker wages, funded in part by McDonald’s Corp., which contends most tomato pickers earn more than Florida’s minimum wage of $6.40 per hour.
Burger King offered to send company recruiters to Florida to talk with workers about employment in the chain’s restaurants, as well as offering support through its charitable arm, the Have It Your Way Foundation.
Lucas Benitez, a CIW spokesman, called the recruitment effort “absurd,” and “a slap in the face” to farm workers.
The argument that the chain has no direct relationship with growers was also made by Taco Bell before that chain agreed to pay the surcharge. Taco Bell now only buys tomatoes from growers that meet certain fair-labor standards, as well as passing on the penny-per-pound directly to farmworkers.