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March 22, 2006
Facing Campaign on Farm Working Conditions, McDonald's to Heed Independent Study Results
    by Bill Baue

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers urges McDonald's to improve farm working conditions, which the company is addressing through a study by the Center for Reflection, Education, and Action.


Following up on its victory a year ago persuading YUM! Brands (ticker: YUM) to pay a penny more per pound to tomato pickers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is now launching a similar campaign targeting McDonald's (MCD). Using the same strategy that brought success in its four-year boycott of YUM subsidiary Taco Bell, CIW is embarking on a "Real Rights Tour" next week to educate consumers in more than 15 cities on the problems before reaching McDonald's corporate headquarters in Chicago.

CIW is particularly disturbed that farmworkers were excluded from the process of creating Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE), which launched in November 2005 with the release of a code of conduct for growers and suppliers. SAFE is a collaboration between Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA), a nonprofit that provides childcare and other support to farmworkers, and the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA), the organization representing growers and suppliers.

"The SAFE code of conduct was drafted and created in a confidential process between representatives of McDonald's and the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association," said Lucas Benitez, spokesperson for CIW. "The CIW was excluded from that process, and the fact that it was ongoing during summer 2005, after the Taco Bell agreement, was kept confidential until the code was complete."

Mr. Benitez said one of the milestones of the Taco Bell boycott settlement was formalizing the presence of organized farmworkers at the negotiation table. This represented, he said, the first time in East Coast agricultural history that farmworkers had a recognized role in the protection of their own labor rights

"In many ways, it appears that the McDonald's/FFVA partnership was forged precisely to block the expansion of the principles established in the Taco Bell agreement through the rest of the fast food industry," Mr. Benitez told SocialFunds.com. "We believe the CIW's exclusion from the drafting and creation of the SAFE code of conduct was an intentional outcome of that partnership that was part of a broader plan to blunt the expansion of the Taco Bell agreement precedents."

In December 2005, Guadalupe Gamboa, program officer for worker rights at Oxfam America, sent a letter to Ken Barun, McDonald's senior vice president for corporate responsibility, requesting a meeting and echoing these concerns, among others. McDonald's did not meet face to face with Oxfam, but conducted several phone discussions that failed to allay Oxfam's concerns.

"The SAFE code of conduct does not provide protections beyond those already required under existing--and currently insufficient--state and federal labor laws that employers are legally obligated to follow," Mr. Gamboa told SocialFunds.com. "For example, the SAFE code of conduct does not contain the right to freedom of association, which is recognized as a principal right under international Human Rights law--and currently denied to farm workers under present labor laws."

Bob Langert, McDonald's senior director for public and community affairs, did not respond to questions from SocialFunds.com, but he did provide a status report.

"An independent economic impact study is underway," Mr. Langert told SocialFunds.com. "This will provide transparency to the suppliers' efforts and provide more useful information to interested stakeholders."

The study is being conducted by the Center for Reflection, Education, and Action (CREA), a faith-based research nonprofit, in response to a January 2006 public commitment by McDonald's suppliers and growers to equal or better the Taco Bell "penny a pound" solution. CREA is no stranger to the issue at hand, as it filed the shareowner resolution asking YUM to report on sustainability and working conditions that added pressure on YUM to reach an agreement.

To gather worker perspectives, CREA has hired Carolina Quinteros of GMIES, the independent monitoring group of El Salvador, to conduct interviews with workers. CREA is also examining 2005 records while gathering 2006 data, and will release its findings publicly through a series of three reports, the first of which is due in early April.

"I'm following McDonald's suppliers for the whole year, because they source from a number of different growers who harvest in a number of different places," said Sister Ruth Rosenbaum, executive director of CREA. "My staff is going through thousands of pages of data--from the forms the workers sign to their picking records from the fields all the way up to their W2s at the end of the year--to see what each worker in our samples is getting paid each day, each week, each year."

CREA takes a systemic approach to all its research and analysis, and this case is no exception, as it is assessing other benefits beyond wages, such as housing, as well as terms of employment.

"The reason we are assessing wages and benefits is because one of the major benefits provided by the growers supplying McDonald's is housing, which includes rent, water and electricity," Sr. Ruth told SocialFunds.com. "To have decent housing for which workers and their families pay only $2 per day is a significant income-raising benefit."

Sr. Ruth also points to McDonald's own Code of Conduct for Suppliers, which exceeds SAFE's guidelines in some instances. For example, it stipulates hiring workers as employees instead of as day laborers, the standard practice in the industry.

"This hiring as employees provides job security and is more respectful of workers' time, because they no longer have to go out before dawn to the hiring area to see if they will be hired for the day," said Sr. Ruth, who will be issuing updates on the study every two to three weeks.

The study (which is partially funded by McDonald's) is not just an academic exercise, but serves as the basis for McDonald's response to the problem.

"McDonalds has pledged that it will do whatever best benefits the workers following the results of our study," she added "I'm optimistic that the solution McDonald's comes up with will be more comprehensive than the Taco Bell penny a pound solution."

The actions McDonald's takes based on the reports' results will indicate the merit of CIW's complaints about not being a partner in study process.

 

 
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