By Larry Lipman
WASHINGTON — Likening the plight of tomato pickers in South Florida to slavery, members of Congress joined labor and human rights groups Thursday calling on fast food giant Burger King to boost pickers' pay.
"We don't want to boycott anyone," said Lucas Benitez, a co-director of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. But he warned that if Burger King does not agree to roughly double the pay of tomato pickers by paying a penny a pound extra, "it's a possibility."
A Burger King Corp. spokesman said the Miami-based company supports "fair wages and safe conditions" for tomato harvesters but accused the coalition of refusing to negotiate.
"We absolutely agree there should be decent wages," said Keva Silversmith, Burger King's external communications director, but he said the coalition "needs to explain the mechanism of how the penny a pound would work."
The coalition already has negotiated penny-a-pound agreements with McDonalds and Yum! Brands, parent company of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and other restaurant chains, but lawmakers and labor advocates said the agreements have been thwarted by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which has threatened to levy fines of up to $100,000 on any grower that participates in the plan.
Reggie Brown, the exchange's executive vice president, said it is a "voluntary cooperative" that has certain contractual rules and that any violation of the contract is subject to a financial penalty.
Brown said the exchange should not be involved in passing the extra payments from the restaurant companies to the tomato pickers because that would legally tie the exchange to the companies. "We would both be liable for each other's sins," he said.
Further, Brown said a skilled tomato picker can make more than $12 a hour, a rate equivalent to picking one tomato per second, or around 2,500 per hour. Brown said studies by the University of Florida have shown that a skilled picker can harvest tomatoes at that rate.
He acknowledged that there have been isolated cases of slave-like conditions, but said those involved were not members of the exchange. "It is fundamentally false," he said of the slavery allegation, an "emotional hook" to gain sympathy for the workers' plight.
However, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., noted that six successful prosecutions for slavery have occurred in South Florida over the past 10 years, including one in the past year.
"It is unthinkable that in the United States of America someone can be successfully prosecuted for slavery in this day and age, but it has happened," Durbin said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee headed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., would hold hearings next month on Florida tomato pickers' working conditions.
By Larry Lipman
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