Social Ministry Day One: Farm workers draw strong Catholic support

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Washington, D.C.

To rousing applause from more than 600 diocesan and parish-level social ministers, the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering bestowed its Sr. Margaret Cafferty Development of People Award on Feb. 24 to the Florida-based “Coalition of Immokalee Workers.”

The coalition is a movement of Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian farm workers that led a bitter, but ultimately successful, campaign to force Taco Bell, McDonalds and other fast-food companies to insist that their produce suppliers improve the wages and working conditions of agricultural laborers.

Speaking in Spanish, one of the Immokalee workers, Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, told the assembly that the typical Immokalee agricultural laborer earned around $7,500 a year, and prior to this campaign had not seen a wage increase since 1978. To simply make minimum wage on an average day, he said, the typical farm worker in his part of Florida would have to pick two and a half tons of tomatoes.

Reyes-Chavez said the Immokalee workers had three demands:
* A penny more a pound for tomatoes they pick;
* An enforceable code of conduct to prevent human rights abuses of workers;
* An on-going 'place at the table' in relations with the companies to ensure that the first two demands are met.

Reyes-Chavez described beatings and situations of slavery endured by the farm workers – noting the irony that 2008 is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, yet slavery in other forms endures.

Reyes-Chavez expressed gratitude for support from the Catholic church, particularly the strong backing of the Florida bishops. He mentioned in particular Bishop John Joseph Nevins, the emeritus bishop of Venice, Florida, and his successor, Bishop Frank Dewane.

Dewane has a strong background in social activism, having served as under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in Rome.

“At the beginning, people asked how a bunch of dirty farm workers was going to take on Taco Bell,” Reyes-Chavez said. “We said we don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we are.”

Today, Reyes-Chavez, the coalition is battling Burger King, asking the company to agree to the same terms already accepted by Taco Bell and McDonalds. The coalition is collecting signatures on a petition they intend to present to Burger King at the end of April, and Reyes-Chavez asked for help from the Catholic Church.

That request brought a swift endorsement from Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who delivered the keynote address to the Social Ministry Gathering Sunday night.

“I know that parishes and dioceses [in the United States] will collect these signatures,” he said, “because things have to change.”

Sponsored by 18 different Catholic organizations, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Social Ministry Gathering brings together diocesan and parish-level leaders involved in charitable service and social advocacy. The session runs Feb. 24-27 in Washington, D.C.

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