Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Is "Evil" Too Strong a Word for Business?

Let me begin with praise for McDonald's and Taco Bell's parent company, Yum! Brands. They are ethical companies.

The following article illustrates the flip-side of "Enlightened Self-Interest," the basis of everything that I teach corporate leaders. While The Naples Institute has created its Socially Conscious Enterprise certification to recognize and reward the most ethical companies in America and the world, it will also be instructive in showing, through omission, what companies are unethical.

I have railed against Reggie Brown before. I will call it like I see it: Brown, and the coalition of Florida tomato growers he speaks for, is evil. His actions and the attitude behind them directly hurt the people who work for those he represents. I invite my readers to provide another adjective that more accurately describes him.

Burger King, likewise, is reprehensible.

To put this in perspective: Taco Bell's parent company, Yum! Brands, will pay an additonal $100,000 per year for tomatoes once the deal they and McDonald's have agreed to goes into effect. I do not have a figure on Burger King, but I would wager that the sum is close.

How much has Burger King spent on lawyers and executive man-hours since this issue arose? How much will it lose from the ill-will it is creating in the public? I believe far, far more than $100,000.

Meanwhile, the workers affected currently average little over $3.00/hour (there is a loop-hole in the Federal minimum wage law specifically for agricultural pickers). As the article said, their pay will double when this $.01/pound goes into effect. Double. Yet even making twice as much as before, they will remain at a level below the Federal poverty line. Think about that.

My question, given the context - the benefit to poverty-stricken workers versus the meager expense to Burger King (and no expense whatsoever to the growers, who are merely passing through the added wage) is this: what is wrong with Reggie Brown, the Tomato Growers, and Burger King?

What is wrong with these people?

Burger King may stop buying local tomatoes
Fast-food giant threatens move as it resists efforts to increase pay for pickers by a penny a pound

Daily News staff and wire reportsTuesday, January 15, 2008

Burger King is telling suppliers it may stop buying tomatoes from Southwest Florida, where farmworkers have fought to get the second-largest hamburger chain to pay more for its produce and help boost field-worker wages, according to a letter obtained Monday by The Associated Press.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has tried for more than a year to get Burger King Corp. to join deals signed by rivals McDonald’s Corp. and Taco Bell owner Yum! Brands Inc.
Those agreements require that the companies pay a penny more per pound for the tomatoes they buy from Florida farms.

Farmers then would pass the extra money through to field workers, although the agreements are on hold after growers balked at participating this year.

Burger King has refused to join the deals and repeatedly insinuated the coalition was keeping the extra money, even after Yum! Brands and several human rights groups dismissed the allegations.

So the Miami-based chain, owned by Burger King Holdings Inc., is asking suppliers to plan for the chain to possibly buy tomatoes elsewhere.

In the Dec. 18, 2007, letter to suppliers, Burger King Vice President Steven Grover wrote: “In an effort to protect the BKC brand and supply system from disruption, we are developing contingency plans to assure our long-term supply of tomatoes.”

Grover went on to ask the suppliers to “submit contingency plans for the possibility that we would choose not to purchase tomatoes grown on farms in the Immokalee, Florida region.”
If it happens, the change would not begin until the 2008-09 season. The letter does not say whether Burger King would completely move its supply chain out of Florida.

“It’s unfortunate and unfounded when we are responsible employers paying good wages and there is no reason why anyone should not do business with the industry in Immokalee,” said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.
Brown said he hasn’t had any discussions with Burger King.

“We would hope that there is little or no basis for this claim,” Brown said.

Florida supplies 80 percent of the nation’s domestic fresh tomatoes between Thanksgiving and February, but the number of domestically produced winter tomatoes has declined in recent years due mostly to imports from Mexico and Canada.

Burger King spokeswoman Denise Wilson confirmed the letter’s authenticity and said the chain is always looking at contingency plans. She emphasized that Burger King buys from repackers in Immokalee, not directly from farmers there.

Coalition spokeswoman Julia Perkins called the letter “defensive and not thought out.”

She said the group’s campaign has never been limited to Immokalee but to the working conditions and pay for workers across the state.

Florida tomato pickers earn about 45 cents per 32-pound bucket. If all purchasers of Florida tomatoes agreed to the penny deal, the state’s mostly migrant farm workers would see their pay nearly double.

“Instead of really dealing with the issues at hand, which are wages and working conditions for farm workers, they are trying to run away from dealing with them,” Perkins said. “If there weren’t any problems for wages and working conditions, there wouldn’t be any reason for them to turn elsewhere — or even look into turning elsewhere.”

Burger King does have support from the Florida tomato growers association.

Earlier this season, the group, which represents nearly all tomato farms, threatened to levy $100,000 fines on members who participated in the McDonald’s and Yum! Brand deals. As a result, no Florida farmers are participating in the deals this year.

U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent lawmaker, is scheduled to visit Immokalee Thursday and Friday to learn more about the farmworkers’ situation, which he calls “the race to the bottom,” spokesman Michael Briggs said.

A press conference is planned at noon Friday at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers office in Immokalee. []