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Immokalee Farmworkers Bring Down the Golden Arches

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On behalf of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, I congratulate the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in their historic victory reaching an agreement with McDonald's to assure the human rights of farmworkers working in McDonald's supply chain.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, this small group of farmworkers from southwest Florida, over the past few years has brought together major labor leaders like AFL-CIO's John Sweeney, faith leaders like the National Council of Church's Rev. Bob Edgar, human rights groups like the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial and even actors like Martin Sheen and musicians Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine to support their cause. The farmworkers and their allies, known as the Alliance for Fair Food, have formed a movement for human rights winning agreements on workers' rights in the supply chain of major produce purchasers in the fast food industry, first with Taco Bell and now McDonald's.

The CIW's courage and commitment continues to drive one of America's most compelling human rights campaigns. As a proud founding member of the Alliance for Fair Food, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial is committed to supporting their continued efforts.

This past Monday, McDonald's set a resounding example agreeing to the international human rights principles laid out by the CIW. McDonald's transformed ideas of corporate responsibility into more than words on their letterhead. Other industry leaders like Burger King now have the opportunity to follow in McDonald's footsteps by accepting accountability for protecting the rights of those laboring in the fields, doing the back breaking labor of picking the produce that ends up in their salads and sandwiches.

As Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez taught us all in America's first farmworker's movements, human rights enforcement cannot be left to governments and law enforcement alone.

41 years ago this month, my father, Robert F. Kennedy, first encountered the human rights struggle faced by farmworkers in this country in Delano, California at a U.S. Senate field hearing. Cesar, Dolores and the United Farm Workers were leading a boycott of California table grapes, forcing companies and consumers involved in the buying and selling of the fruit to see their role in continuing the cycle of poverty and abuse.

Four decades later, labor laws, pay and working conditions remain grim for farmworkers. The struggle continues for farmworkers and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has picked up Cesar Chavez's torch.

My father once said "there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the bomb or the shot in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay." The farmworkers of Immokalee, Florida toil in fields ripe with institutional indifference.

The CIW and their allies are overcoming historic abuses by forcing the retail-food industry to end their indifference to human suffering. Today big produce purchasers like McDonald's, Burger King and Subway are at the center of human rights issues in farmworker communities like Immokalee. These companies must realize that they have international human rights obligation to stop abuse within their operations and supply networks. McDonald's has recognized just that.

In 2000 the United Nations concluded ending human rights abuses were at the center of responsible corporate citizenship in the 21st century. The United Nations' Global Compact and subsequent U.N. agreements on human rights norms require corporations to make sure they are not directly supporting human rights abuses while protecting internationally proclaimed human rights within their supply chain and spheres of influence.

McDonald's joined with 50 other global companies to sign on to the Global Compact and with Monday's agreement they follow through on their human rights commitments.

Now it is time for Burger King, Subway, Walmart and others in the retail food industry to acknowledge their responsibilities and partner with the farmworkers, the victims of institutionalized human rights abuse. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is not asking for special treatment or handouts for its members. Their corporate partnerships are grounded in three internationally recognized human rights principles.

First, we all share the right against slavery and forced labor. Still the agricultural industry in Florida, in the words of federal officials, has become "ground zero for modern day slavery." The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has helped prosecute six slavery cases of involuntary servitude involving over 1,000 farmworkers in Florida since 1997.

The CIW requires its corporate partners adopt a verifiable zero tolerance policy for modern-day slavery in their supply chain. Still international human rights laws recognize violations of economic and social rights often lay the foundation for forced labor. Understanding this, the CIW recognizes corporations' anti-slavery codes alone will not assure farmworkers' freedom. Workers freedom requires companies to acknowledge workers' rights to economic security and the right to participate in assuring companies comply with such codes.

Everyone has a human right to just working conditions, including fair wages that provide for a decent living for workers and their families. Today the average farmworker in Immokalee has a yearly income of less than $7,500. The CIW demands that farmworkers be paid a penny per a pound of tomatoes picked directly from produce purchasers like McDonald's and Yum! Foods. The increase effectively doubles the wages of farmworkers picking for their suppliers. If the entire industry stepped up like these two companies and made similar agreements, farmworkers and their families could overcome extreme poverty.

Finally employees and their representatives like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have a right to participate with corporations in determining and implementing methods to fulfill human rights responsibilities in corporate supply chains. Internationally accepted human rights norms require companies to work with groups like the CIW to guarantee companies and their suppliers will follow through on their responsibilities with capable, independent and transparent operations to monitor codes of conduct that allow workers and the victims of abuse to have a voice.

Human rights are held by all persons equally, universally, and forever. Corporations must realize these rights are indivisible and interdependent. Without these rights slavery, poverty and abuse will continue in America's retail food industry, tainting the salads and sandwiches of those who do not stand up for human dignity.

Congratulations to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and to McDonald's for their historic accomplishment, setting the standards for human rights in the retail food industry.

Source: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial