A Whopper of an Injustice

This column ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality website on November 26. 2007.

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.

And while you’re at it read this NY Times Op-Ed by the author of Fastfood Nation. 

6 thoughts on “A Whopper of an Injustice

  1. I’ve run out of excuses not to become involved in social justice, peacemaking and ?…so in 2008 I will be exploring various options in order to find a fit…so I’ll be talking to you in the new year.

  2. I’m still trying to figure out how to make my hosting program accept Bill’s posts. Meanwhile, Bill writes,

    Interesting blog entry. I am curious, though, exactly what BK International can do to guarantee higher wages for the tomato harvesters, aside from refusing to purchase produce from those growers who don’t cooperate. If BK has its own corporate farms, that’s a different story, of course.

    But it raises another issue: do individual franchisees have any choice in where they buy their produce? I suspect they don’t, and probably are locked into pretty restrictive franchise contracts — but I don’t know that for a fact.

    Bill

  3. Bill raises two issues that are worthy of further clarification.

    regarding the ability of BK to guarantee higher wages, here is what Yum! Brands and McDonalds have done: they have agreed to pay an extra penny per pound of tomatoes picked directly to the laborers. McDonalds went further by establishing a monitoring agency to insure that the workers in its supply chain are paid fair and just wages, and to ensure that their penny per pound is actually going to the workers.

    Part of the problem with low wages for workers rests with Fast Food’s ability to set the price of produce. They use so many tomatoes that they can more or less tell the suppliers what the cost of the tomatoes will be.

    The second question is one whose answer I don’t know for sure, except to say that I’d be surprised if local franchises were free to find their own suppliers. The fast food business model seems to be one of absolute conformity.

    Best,

    Ben

  4. If a corporation uses so much produce that it can in fact set the price, that creates an interesting situation: there apparently becomes no need to be totally vertically integrated (in other words, MickeyD owns the feedlots and the cattle, the farms and the produce, and controls the franchise) and also conveniently avoids potential anti-trust legal issues. And absent any voice of protest, can then exploit whomever it wants for as long as it can get away with it.

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