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NEW YORK, May 7 2007 (IPS) - McDonald\’s set a resounding example by agreeing to abide by the international human rights principles laid out by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), writes Kerry Kennedy, author and human rights activist, and founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Centre for Human Rights. In this article, Kennedy writes that 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 institutionalised human rights abuse. As Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez taught us all in America\’s first farmworkers movements, human rights enforcement cannot be left to governments and law enforcement alone. Human rights are held by all persons equally, universally, and forever. Corporations must realise these rights are indivisible and interdependent. Without these rights, slavery, poverty, and abuse will continue to taint America\’s retail food industry.
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 institutionalised human rights abuse.
Over the past few years, this small group of farmworkers from southwest Florida has brought together major labour leaders like John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO (the largest labour union federation in the US), 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 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.
As Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez taught us all in America’s first farmworkers movements, human rights enforcement cannot be left to governments and law enforcement alone.
Forty-one years ago my father, Robert F. Kennedy, first encountered the human rights struggle faced by farmworkers in this country in Delano, California, at a US 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, labour law, pay, and working conditions remain grim for farmworkers, for whom the struggle continues. Indeed it should be noted that the labour movement in the US has weakened considerably in recent decades. By the end of 2006 a mere 12% of the workforce was unionised, about half the percentage in 1979.
In 2000 the United Nations concluded that ending human rights abuses was at the centre of responsible corporate citizenship in the 21st century. The UN Global Compact and subsequent UN 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 50 other global companies to sign on to the Global Compact, which they have fulfilled with April’s agreement.
The CIW’s corporate partnerships are grounded in three internationally recognised human rights principles.
First, we all share the right against slavery and forced labour. The agricultural industry in Florida, in the words of federal officials, has become “ground zero for modern day slavery.” The CIW requires its corporate partners to adopt a verifiable zero tolerance policy for modern-day slavery in their supply chain. Since 1997 it has helped prosecute six slavery cases of involuntary servitude involving over 1,000 farmworkers in Florida .
Because violations of economic and social rights often lay the foundation for forced labour, the CIW recognizes that corporations’ anti-slavery codes alone will not assure farmworkers’ freedom. Companies must also acknowledge the right of workers to economic security and to participate in assuring that 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 USD 7,500, well below what the US government defines as the ”poverty line”. The average yearly salary in the US is 37,700. The CIW demands that farmworkers be paid a penny (USD 0.01) per pound of tomatoes picked directly for produce purchasers like McDonald’s, which effectively doubles their pay. If the entire industry made similar agreements, farmworkers and their families could overcome extreme poverty.
Finally employees and their representatives like the CIW 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 that 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 realise these rights are indivisible and interdependent. Without these rights, slavery, poverty, and abuse will continue to taint America’s retail food industry. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)
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