American farmers insist they can't pay farm workers more, arguing that international trade agreements, especially NAFTA, has locked them in competition with nations that enjoy benign environmental regulations and lower labor costs.
For their part some farm workers have taken their case to the court of public opinion. For example Florida tomato pickers are asking consumers to carry their demands for higher wages. There is some evidence the effort is working.
Beginning Labor Day, the Presbyterian Church U-S-A says it will boycott Taco Bell restaurants. The intent is to pressure the fast good chain to encourage Florida farmers to pay higher wages to the farm workers who pick the tomatoes used by Taco Bell. The Presbyterians are only the latest to join a movement that has logged thousands of miles to reach American consumers. John Nichols reports.
In 1960, CBS broadcast the landmark documentary "Harvest of Shame." Hosted by legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow, the program introduced America to the plight of migrant farm workers.
Oppressive working conditions, poverty level wages and substandard housing were depicted graphically and the program made a distinct impression on the conscience of the American People.
While federal labor laws, including minimum wage standards have been implemented since 1960, some workers claim things haven't changed in the 40 years since "Harvest of Shame."
Lucas Benitez (Translation): "In a good year, we might make $9,000.00 and that's a good year, but usually we're at somewhere between $7,500, 8,000 a year."
Lucas Benitez worked as a migrant farm worker for nearly 10 years picking everything from oranges to tomatoes.
Frustrated by the poor wages, he co-founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farm worker advocacy group based in Immokalee, Florida.
Benitez says migrant farm workers are denied the right to organize, don't receive benefits like health insurance, sick leave and pensions and often live in substandard housing. He says the trailer shown here rents for about $800.00 per month and is shared by six workers.
Lucas Benitez (Translation): "The living conditions here are really sub-human. Housing is a real problem here, but in the end, everything is still tied back to the low wages that we earn in the field."
According to the Coalition, Immokalee's farm workers are paid 40 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick… the same piece rate they were paid in 1978. At that rate, the Coalition claims a worker must pick and haul 125 buckets, or two tons of tomatoes to make 50-dollars in a day.
Most of the 2,000 farm workers the coalition represents pick tomatoes for the Immokalee-based Six L's Packing Company, one of America's largest tomato producers.
The company declined to be interviewed by Market to Market for this story. And Coalition staff member Greg Asbed says that's typical for growers.
Greg Asbed: "There's no sort of communication between workers and employers. There's no balance of power that you see in regular jobs in the fields. So that makes it impossible to complain about the smaller things or the biggest things like pesticide exposure or not getting paid on payday."
Even though they're paid a piece rate of 40-cents per bucket, federal law requires that workers earn at least minimum wage of $5.15 per hour.
But Asbed says many of the workers don't receive minimum wage.
Greg Asbed: "The courts are full of cases of unpaid minimum wages, people working for two or three dollars an hour when you look at the actual time the people are in the fields and what they're paid at the end of the day. A lot of the records in the fields will show you that people made $40 in five hours, they actually made those $40 in ten hours. So, it was four dollars an hour and not eight dollars an hour. And that's the reality."
Hourly wages aside, the work is highly unstable. Variable weather and crop conditions can lead to lost hours in the field and greatly affect the workers annual income.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual income of farm workers today is $7,500, which is below the poverty line.
All of which has led the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to take their case to the streets.
Marchers: "Boycott Taco Bell, Boycott Taco Bell"
Claiming that Taco Bell is a major purchaser of the tomatoes they pick, the Coalition pleaded with the fast food giant to do something about sweatshop conditions in the fields.
The Coalition asked Taco Bell to pay a penny per pound more for it's tomatoes and to pass the increase on to the workers. The Coalition claims an increase of one cent per pound would double the workers' wages.
But the multi-national corporation refused to discuss the idea, and in March of 2001, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers called for a national boycott of Taco Bell.
Demonstrator: "Yo No Quiero Taco Bell!"
Earlier this year, the Coalition embarked on what it called "The Truth Tour." A whistlestop tour of America, culminating in a demonstration at Taco Bell Headquarters in Irvine, California.
Many of the stops along the way were at college campuses, where students sensitive to social injustice, were anxious to join in the cause.
Jonathan Harris: "So, we're telling Taco Bell at this point ya'll need to get off our campus until you're ready to negotiate with these workers."
Jonathan Harris is a student at Duke University and a member of United Students Against Sweatshops. The group was a major factor in getting Nike to improve working conditions for its labor force in the textile industry.
Jonathan Harris: "We forced Nike to admit that they do have a responsibility for the working conditions of the workers that don't necessarily work for them directly but are subcontracted and produce the product that eventually has their brand name. This is the same exact thing going on here with Taco Bell."
Officials with Taco Bell, declined to be interviewed on camera, but did tell Market To Market that, "It is not Taco Bell's policy to get involved in the affairs of its suppliers. Taco Bell purchases vegetables through an independent broker in Florida and we do not set the price. This is a labor dispute between 6 L's and its employees."
Greg Asbed: "Companies like Taco Bell can't do business outside of public opinion. So, Taco Bell can take the position that Nike did at the beginning and say that we don't get involved in the labor disputes of our suppliers but it's the customers that decide."
Lucas Benitez (Translation): "We know this will be a long struggle but we also know that we will win."
For Market to Market, I'm John Nichols.