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Penny Foolish: Schlosser NY Times op-ed discusses migrant worker pay

In an op-ed for today’s New York Times, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser looks at Burger King’s refusal to support a penny-a-pound increase in the price they pay for Florida-grown tomatoes and how this affects the migrant workers who pick the tomatoes. His description of abuses of undocumented migrant workers sounds familiar and provides a backdrop against which to discuss the low wages:

Perhaps 80 percent of the migrants in Florida are illegal immigrants and thus especially vulnerable to abuse. During the past decade, the United States Justice Department has prosecuted half a dozen cases of slavery among farm workers in Florida. Migrants have been driven into debt, forced to work for nothing and kept in chained trailers at night.

Farm workers earn approximately $56/day for handling about two tons of tomatoes; wages are calculated based on piece rates rather than hours worked. Existing agreements with Taco Bell and McDonald’s have improved some migrant worker wages to as much as $90+ a day. (That averages out to a little over $8/hour for hard physical labor, an amount I consider horrifically low.) The penny-a-pound increase went directly to migrant workers. However, Burger King’s refusal to play is undermining these hard-earned improvements; according to Schlosser, these workers now face a 40% pay cut as tomato growers “cancel the deals already struck with Taco Bell and McDonald’s.”

What about buyers who want to voluntarily pay extra to make sure that the workers who harvest their food can themselves afford to eat?

Now the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has threatened a fine of $100,000 for any grower who accepts an extra penny per pound for migrant wages. The organization claims that such a surcharge would violate “federal and state laws related to antitrust, labor and racketeering.”

What can I say? Wow.