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Boycotts benefit farmworkers

Kamaria Porter | Monday, September 29, 2003

An integrated existence – where thought, word and especially deed all point towards the good – is perhaps the most challenging goal an individual or community can undertake wholeheartedly. As Americans, we interact with the world the most through our activities as various entities in the global marketplace.Recognizing this, it is imperative that we contemplate the amount of responsibility consumers, firms and other institutions possess in relation to workers, at every stage of production, experiencing unfair labor conditions. Also, when the culpability of a certain entity is evident, what is the duty of other social parties in encouraging a resolution to problems?In the fields of south Florida, tomato pickers receive 40 to 50 cents per 32-pound bucket they generate. This meager unit rate has not changed since 1978. Denied the right to participate in unions, farmworkers have no way to better their situation. A far cry from the abstraction of the “self-made person,” conditions established by tomato suppliers forbid pickers from gaining any power over their lives.In an effort to demand better treatment, farmworkers organized the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Led by the farmworkers and based in Immokalee, Fla., the CIW asks Taco Bell – a major buyer of south Florida tomatoes – to enter a dialogue with representatives from CIW and the tomato suppliers, develop a Code of Conduct which would establish mandatory labor standards for suppliers to follow, and bolster farmworker wages by increasing their unit expenditure of tomatoes by one penny per pound. Such an increase would double farmworker earnings, which now average annually to $7,500.Taco Bell claims since the farmworkers are not direct employees of the company, they have no responsibility concerning CIW and their demands. I believe Taco Bell not only has the greatest ability to improve the lives of tomato pickers but also a moral obligation to ensure workers at every rung of their production chain receive adequate wages, have a voice in their work environment and can produce without fear of intimidation.In their attempts to shirk accountability, Taco Bell calls the CIW’s concentration on their company an arbitrary ploy. This argument carries absolutely no weight because, as a major consumer of southern Florida tomatoes picked by struggling farmworkers, the company holds the greatest leverage over possible increases in farmworker income and livelihood. If Taco Bell paid more for tomatoes and established a code of conduct as CIW requests, Florida suppliers, wanting to maintain their business relationships, would have no choice but to comply. Since Taco Bell has the most power to rectify this injustice and refuses to act, they oppress farmworkers as much as suppliers.Taco Bell and their parent company, YUM Brands, exhibit perverse self-contradictions in denying the pleas of CIW. Due to agitation from animal rights groups, YUM Brands – which also owns Pizza Hut and KFC – insisted the animals used in their food products receive fair treatment even though YUM does not directly employ the animal handlers. It amazes me that the company would assume such altruistic accountability towards animals yet allow Taco Bell to refuse the same concessions for farmworkers crucial to their production process. Since CIW implores consumers nationwide to boycott Taco Bell while their requests are ignored, I would attribute additional responsibility for this infringement of justice to institutions affiliated with Taco Bell and consumers. Currently, through a local franchisee, Taco Bell sponsors the Notre Dame Football Postgame Show on WNDU. Being familiar with the issues, the Progressive Student Alliance saw this business interaction as inconsistent with our University’s ostensible ideals. Notre Dame has, through its commitment against sweatshop conditions in its apparel production, established an image as an institution seeking to conduct its economic dealings with companies engaged in fair labor practices. Taco Bell definitely does not fit that description.Last week, three representatives from PSA met with Notre Dame’s General Counsel Carol Kaesebier to discuss these concerns. Understanding the University cannot terminate their current contract without serious financial repercussions, PSA maintains that even though Notre Dame’s commercial agreement is with a local franchise of Taco Bell, it is still a part of the whole. Any future affiliation with Taco Bell is inappropriate in regards to the University’s anti-sweatshop efforts. Also, I feel by allowing Taco Bell to push its products on our name and reputation, the University inflicts further injury on the tomato pickers. Lastly, as college students, Taco Bell’s target market, we too have the potential to aid farmworkers. Student groups all over the country have committed to work in solidarity with CIW to eject Taco Bell from their campuses and spread the word about the boycott. Locally, PSA organizes weekly protests at a Taco Bell location and is planning a myriad of events around this and related issues. If you are not the activist type, I ask you to consider the consequences of your patronage of Taco Bell restaurants on Florida farmworkers and to get your meal elsewhere. This is one small way we can all walk the path of moral integration.

Kamaria Porter is a sophomore history major. Contact her at kporter@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.