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
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
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
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.
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.