Those who, like me, were lucky enough to enjoy the blessing of a well-cooked and lovingly shared thanksgiving meal last Thursday already have a good reason not to eat at Burger King; after all, eating fast food is an assault upon the blessed memory of wonderful meals. However, if eating a well-trimmed turkey in a state of gratitude and grace has not cured you of your Whopper jones, consider this: unlike Yum! Brands (a family of businesses that includes Taco Bell and KFC) and McDonalds, Burger King has yet to commit itself to guaranteeing that none of the food in its supply chain was produced using slave labor.
Fast food is not cheap. Eating at places like Burger King is a fairly inexpensive way for consumers to purchase calories, but the true cost of the meal is underwritten by farm workers, particularly those who harvest tomatoes. The laborers who harvest the tomatoes that end up in your BK Broiler were underpaid in 1980, and they have not received a substantive raise since then. Typically, those who work in the fields that supply Burger King earn around $10,000.00 a year—roughly half the poverty level for an American family of four.
Keep in mind that in order to earn now the same wages paid in the waning months of the Carter Administration (around fifty dollars a day), a tomato harvester—who earns 1.3 cents per pound—must pick two tons of tomatoes each day during the tomato harvest. This takes ten to twelve hours.
And those who can pull this off are the lucky ones. A significant number of tomato pickers are slaves. In recent years federal prosecutors have utilized reconstruction-era anti-slavery laws to make arrests that have freed more than a thousand slave laborers in Florida.
In 2005, Yum! Brands reached an agreement with a coalition of Florida agriculture workers that guaranteed each person harvesting tomatoes for Taco Bell and other Yum! Brands restaurants would earn an extra cent per pound of produce harvested. McDonalds also has agreed to a similar compensation commitment. So far, Burger King has offered to hire field workers to flip patties in its restaurants, but has remained unwilling to guarantee a living wage for the workers in its food supply chain.
This week, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (or CIW), the group responsible for forging worker-friendly agreements with Yum! and McDonalds, will be demonstrating in front of Burger King’s International headquarters in Miami, demanding that Burger King join its competition in guaranteeing fair and just wages for tomato harvesters. In making this demand, the CIW is joined by the Presbyterian Church (USA), the National Council of Churches, the Methodists, the Episcopalians, and several labor and human rights organizations.
And I am with them as well. I’ll be in San Jose writing a sermon for the first Sunday in Advent while the demonstrations are happening in Florida, but my heart will be in Miami. As of yet no one is calling for a boycott of Burger King, but I will not eat at Burger King until it can be guaranteed that no food from Burger King was produced using slavery.
Asking Burger King to serve slavery-free food is not an unreasonable request, nor is it unfair to ask that farm workers supplying Burger King be paid a twenty-first century living wage. I believe that just about anyone who has ever used both hands to handle a Whopper will agree. It’s bad enough that meals from Burger King clog arteries and add girth to the collective American Midsection; meals from Burger King become absolutely unpalatable so long as they are salted by the tears of oppression.
Here’s a update. Cliff Kirkpatrick, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has written a letter to BK International scolding them for trying to undermine the arrangements reached by Yum! Brands and McDonalds. It is very worth a read. Another reason it is good to be a Presbyterian.