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Coalition of Immokalee Workers

MIAMI A farm workers’ advocacy group marched nine miles through Burger King’s home city on Friday to pressure the chain to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes, as McDonald’s and Taco Bell parent Yum! Brands have already agreed to do.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, from the heart of Florida’s tomato-growing region, says the additional penny would be used to improve the wages and working conditions of tomato pickers. But the program’s legality has been questioned, both by Burger King and some tomato growers.

Burger King Holdings Inc., parent of the quick-service brand, does not see how it can legally pay workers who do not work for the company. The penny would be paid to suppliers, who would be expected to channel the money to the pickers.

“We see no legal way of paying these workers,” Steve Grover, Burger King’s vice president of foodservice quality assurance and regulatory compliance, recently told Nation’s Restaurant News. “The CIW has gone after us because we are a known brand. But at the end of the day we don’t employ the farm workers, so how can we pay them?”

The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, an agriculture cooperative, said its members have refused to accept the supplemental charge from McDonald’s and Yum because of concerns about violating antitrust, labor and racketeering laws.

The Tomato Growers Exchange, which represents 90 percent of Florida’s tomato growers, also has asserted that tomato pickers earn an average of $12.46 per hour, or nearly double Florida’s current minimum wage of $6.67.

Despite the exchange’s objections, McDonald’s and Yum have said they would continue to pay the extra penny per pound, though it is unclear how the workers would receive the money if the growers refuse to accept it.

Julia Perkins, a spokeswoman for the CIW, told Nation’s Restaurant News recently that the money would be placed in a trust for the workers until the issue is resolved.

Yum was the first restaurant concern to agree to the penny-per-pound supplement. It agreed in 2005 to pay the extra penny for tomatoes used in its Taco Bell brand, and announced earlier this year that it would extend the supplement to tomatoes bought for its Pizza Hut, Long John Silver’s and A&W All-American brands. This fall would be the first season for McDonald’s to participate in the program.

Both those franchisors agreed to pay the supplement after being subjected to protests similar to the one in Miami. The so-called fair food campaign drew 300 to 400 protestors, including migrant workers, students, union members and representatives of religious groups.

The group started their march at the Miami offices of Goldman Sachs, whose private-equity arm is a significant stakeholder in Burger King. The march ended at Burger King’s headquarters.

Grover said Burger King has tried for two years to reach an agreement with the CIW.

“If we agreed to the penny per pound, Burger King would pay about $250,000 annually or $100 per worker,” Grover said. “We have no way of knowing where the money would be going. How does that solve exploitation and poverty?”

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