Over the past month, activists in Albuquerque, N.M., have been directly challenging Taco Bell’s sales and profits by distributing free vegetarian burritos to potential Taco Bell customers approaching the restaurant. At the same time, they have been informing the people about the Taco Bell boycott and the atrocious working conditions in the fields of Immokalee, Fla., where the food giant purchases the majority of its tomatoes.
Migrant tomato pickers in Immokalee face a whole spectrum of injustices. There is actual slavery, most often taking the form of labor contractors forcing newly- arrived undocumented immigrants to work off exorbitant fees demanded by smugglers for the trip to their new job in Florida. In fact, in the last six years there have been six successfully prosecuted cases of involuntary servitude involving more than 1,000 farm workers in South Florida. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based farm-worker organization instrumental in the prosecutions, estimates that 10 percent of U.S. farm laborers are enslaved.
But you need not go to extremes to understand the tomato pickers’ struggle. Those who do not face slavery face slave wages. Tomato companies pay Immokalee farm workers 40-50 cents for every 32 lb. bucket of tomatoes they pick, virtually the same rate they made in 1978. According to a University of Florida survey, Immokalee pickers make an average annual income of just $6,574. They receive no health insurance, no sick leave, no paid holidays, no paid vacation, no pension and are denied the right to overtime pay and the right to organize.
Because corporation doesn’t produce tomatoes itself but rather buys them from large farms, Taco Bell officials have said, “we don’t believe it’s our place to get involved in another company’s labor dispute.” Unfortunately, as a major buyer of Florida tomatoes, Taco Bell is already involved.
The coalition called for a national boycott of Taco Bell in 2001 to force the company to take responsibility for workers’ rights. As coalition member Lucas Benitez said, “We as farm workers are tired of subsidizing Taco Bell’s profits with our poverty. We are calling for this boycott today as a first step toward winning back what is rightfully ours — a fair wage and respect for the hard and dangerous work we do.”
In contrast to Taco Bell’s use of food to feed corporate greed and support oppression, the activists armed with free burritos provide an alternate use for food which meets human needs and supports justice. The activists not only hand out the bean burritos for free but also spend nothing to make them. Rather they are made from beans and tortillas that have been donated or would otherwise be discarded. Meeting at the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice to cook the beans and roll the burritos, the activists then head to a different location each time to hand them out and show the public that Taco Bell food is not only less healthy and tasty but also comes from the continuous exploitation and enslavement of migrant farm workers in the United States.
The public’s response to this form of protest has been mixed, depending on the location and clientele. Nevertheless, most people — when informed about the boycott — are supportive, realizing they can and should make a difference in the workers’ struggle for living wages. At several protests, people even backed out of the drive thru when told that Taco Bell has refused to increase the price of menu items by a fraction of a penny even it would double the picking piece rate for the Immokalee farm workers.
Because of Taco Bell’s nationwide locations, activists can replicate this action across the country and increase the disruption to its sales and profits. And we hope Taco Bell will soon take a closer look at the boycott and concede to the demands — so small to begin with — needed to improve the lives of Immokalee tomato pickers.
Shrayas Jatkar and Robert McGoey, Daily Lobo, University of New Mexico.