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Saturday, 3 March, 2001, 20:30 GMT
Florida tomato pickers urge Taco boycott
Taco Bell chain of restaurants
Protesters say Taco Bell should pay more for its produce
By Malcolm Brabant in Miami

Farm workers and students in Florida are calling for a nationwide boycott of the Taco Bell Mexican fast food chain as part of a campaign to improve the living conditions of immigrant tomato pickers.

They are planning to demonstrate outside a Taco Bell store in Miami on Sunday, as part of their escalating series of protests aimed at forcing what they believe is ethical trading principles.

They are exploiting us, and I can barely pay their rent

Luis Alberto Alverez
Similar student action forced the Nike sportswear company to stop using sweatshop labour.

Tomato pickers in Florida earn an average of $7,500 a year which is well beneath the legal minimum wage.

Moral trading practices

The protestors are hoping to force Taco Bell to adopt what they believe are moral trading practices.

They allege the prices the fast food company pays for its tomatoes are keeping predominantly immigrant pickers below the poverty line.

They claim the workers could double their earnings, if Taco Bell would pay just 1% more per pound of tomatoes.

A sweatshop in Nicaragua Sweat
Farmworkers' conditions said to be like those in sweatshops
Luis Alberto Alverez is a 20-year-old picker who support a family of five back in Mexico.

"When I came here I had a dream of supporting my family. But they are exploiting us, and I can barely pay their rent," he said.

The pickers toil in the fields of south-western Florida which provide America's winter tomato crop.

Their organisation claims they are paid around 40 cents for every bucket they pick, the same rate they were getting in 1980. They have to work twice as hard as 20 years ago to earn the legal minimum wage.

Political clout

Lucas Benitez is the leader of the tomato workers organisation, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). He admits as farmworkers they do not have much political clout.

We are getting a lot of support

Lucas Benitez, CIW
"But," he said, "we are forging alliances with people who do, and we are getting a lot of support."

This battle comes just as a US Department of Labour report condemns the conditions facing the nation's farm workers.

The department believes that three out of every five labourers are living in poverty.

When adjusted for inflation farmworkers real wages have decreased by 5% over the last decade.

Labour costs

For their part, farmers claim they are struggling to compete against nations with lower labour costs.

They insist the wages in Florida are higher than elsewhere in the US, and say tomato plants nowadays produce more fruit, which makes picking easier than it was 20 years ago.

A spokeswoman at Taco Bell headquarters in California said it was not their position to become involved in the affairs of other companies.

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22 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Nike admits abuse at Indonesian plants
15 Feb 01 | Americas
Analysis: Mexican exodus
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