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Published: Monday, 5/3/2004

Methodists urged to support Taco Bell boycott

BY ANN RODGERS
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

PITTSBURGH - The United Methodists, at their general conference in Pittsburgh, signaled they will join a boycott against fast-food chain Taco Bell over working conditions of migrants who pick its tomatoes in Florida.

The Committee on Church and Society recommended the boycott action on Thursday, and the General Conference will take it up as a whole this week. The once-every-four-years assembly runs through Friday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

According to the petition, tomato-pickers for Taco Bell's major supplier in Immokalee, Fla., make an average of 40 cents a 32-pound bucket, and haven't received a pay raise in 20 years. It also said some workers are held against their will in what amounts to slavery.

There was a lengthy debate among the 103 committee members over whether to allow the Presbyterian minister who coordinates the boycott to speak, because no representative from Taco Bell was present. Eventually, the Rev. Noelle Damico and farm worker Gerardo Chavez were given three minutes each.

Pastor Damico said workers had tried for years to negotiate better wages with the tomato grower and started putting pressure on Taco Bell when they discovered that the fast-food giant was the major buyer of the tomatoes. The U.S. Department of Justice has begun to prosecute cases in which workers are brought in from other countries and sold to growers, she said.

Mr. Chavez elaborated, saying that for most of his 26 years he rose at 4 a.m. to pick tomatoes for 12 to 14 hours, 365 days a year. As examples of slavery, he said some pickers were forced to remain in the fields at gunpoint, and that one who tried to escape was taken from the work camp, had both knees broken with a hammer, and was thrown from a van going 40 miles per hour.

"We have families. We have dreams. We are only asking that they be responsible," he said. "We are asking them, 'Can you guarantee that your tomatoes are not picked by slave labor?'●"

Bill Coons, a delegate from Texas, objected that it was not right to try to force Taco Bell to intervene in a labor dispute. But Jacques Pierre, a Florida delegate, called it "a simple case of social justice."

At the rate they are paid, he said, "some would have to pick two tons of tomatoes to make $50."

Although it was not cited during the debate, the Taco Bell Web site says that its parent company, Yum! Brands, has a supplier code of conduct.

"Suppliers are expected to ensure that their employees have safe and healthy working conditions and reasonable daily and weekly work schedules," it says.

"In accordance with applicable law, no supplier should perform work or produce goods for Yum using labor under any form of indentured servitude, nor should theats of violence, physical punishment, confinement or other forms of abuse be used as a method of discipline or control."

The committee voted 99-4 to recommend support of the boycott. The full body votes this week.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ann Rodgers is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.



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