Monday, January 30, 2006

Slavery Beneath the Golden Arches?

Slavery Beneath the Golden Arches?
By Jordan Buckley and Katie Shepherd

In light of recent revelations that McDonald's buys tomatoes through at least one convicted slaver, a farmworkers' group is urging the company to change its ways.

Exactly 50 years ago this weekend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. answered a startling phone call from Minneapolis Tribune journalist Carl T. Rowan. Rowan had come across a wire report that the Montgomery bus boycott -- then entering its sixth week -- had been resolved by city officials and local black ministers.

The announcement would, of course, prove to be a fabrication of local authorities, and the boycott would endure another 11 months, resulting in the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Alabama's bus segregation laws.

Today -- in the face of a recent revelation that McDonald's appears to buy its tomatoes through at least one convicted slaver -- the fast food giant has resorted to a similarly shameful tactic: taking token measures to avoid confronting the severe human rights abuses that may be hidden within its supply chain.

Since 1997, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) -- a community group from Southern Florida representing thousands of farmworkers -- has uncovered, investigated and helped to prosecute six separate slavery cases. In 2003, three CIW members were awarded the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their work in liberating over 1,100 individuals involuntarily held in agricultural work camps along the East Coast.

Last November, CIW called upon McDonald's to partner with them in confronting the violence and subpoverty wages of modern-day farm labor. McDonald's complicity in farmworker misery is not only emblematic of the industry as a whole, but its substantial clout as a fast-food monolith qualifies it as an apt candidate for working to end the extreme injustice.

Farm labor contractor Abel Cuello is just one of the slavers brought to justice by the CIW. In 1999, he was sentenced to only 33 months in prison for enslaving 27 people in trailers on his property. Due to a loophole in Florida law, a contractor is entitled to return to work just five years after being convicted for violating worker-protection laws. Accordingly, in October, Cuello legally returned to the fields.

In his contractor license application dated Oct. 8, 2004, Cuello stated that his job is to "recruit, supervise, [and] transport farm workers for Ag-Mart Farms." Although Ag-Mart claimed that Cuello has been banned from the company's premises, it employs E&B Harvesting and Trucking Inc., the company that Cuello launched just months after release from prison, and that his wife, Yolanda, presently serves as the sole owner.

Gregory Schell, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Lake Worth, Fla., who has spoken with scores of Ag-Mart farmworkers, insists that Cuello -- and not Yolanda -- works as E&B Harvesting's crew boss for Ag-Mart. "His wife has never been seen in the fields by the crew. He [Cuello] runs the operation," Schell said.

So who buys tomatoes from a man convicted of human enslavement? The answer seems to lie beneath the Golden Arches.


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