PR - Crisis and Management

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Ronald McDonald: Slave Owner?

Slavery under the golder arches? It was discovered in January that fast food giant, McDonald's buys its tomatoes through at least one convicted slaver. This has become a crisis PR fiasco because McDonalds has been avoiding dealing with severe human rights abuses that may be hidden within its supply chain.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a community group from Southern Florida representing thousands of farmworkers which in the past 9 years has uncovered, investigated and helped to prosecute six separate slavery cases. Last November, CIW asked McDonald's to partner with them in confronting the violence and subpoverty wages of modern-day farm labor. McDonald's made a smart public relations decision when they decided to join forces with CIW and start working to end the extreme injustice in farm labor. It appeared to consumers that McDonald's was being socially aware and working towards improving the standards of farm labor.

So everything seemed to be going well but a PR crisis was brewing behind the scenes. In 1999, farm labor contractor Abel Cuello was sentenced to only 33 months in prison for enslaving 27 people in trailers on his property. Cuello was employeed by Ag-Mart farms at the time which just happens to be the company where McDonalds buys it tomatoes. Although it would occur to any practical person that McDonald's should stop purchasing tomatoes from a convicted slaver, they didn't. According to Florida state law, a farm contractor can return to the fields just 5 years after being convicted, and thats just what Cuello did.

McDonald's continued to buy their tomatoes from Ag-Mart even after Cuello was convicted. Also, last year Ag-Mart received notice of 457 pesticide violations from North Carolina and Florida agricultural officials . The investigation included the pesticides causing severe birth defects in three babies born to its farmworkers. Despite that McDonalds continues to buy tomatoes through Ag-Mart. Even the notoriously anti-labor Wal-Mart has reacted by terminating its tomato purchases from Ag-Mart.

The main public relations portion of this case revolves around McDona'ds civil duty to use its market power, as a fast food giant, to work against injustices such as those found in farm labor. According to, farmworkers must pick two tons of tomatoes, literally 4,000 pounds , to earn just $50 in a day. They regularly work 10- to 12-hour days with no overtime pay, no right to organize, no sick days and no benefits whatsoever.

Instead of not buying from Ag-Mart, McDonalds now supports an initiative controlled by growers called Socially Accountable Farm Employers, deceptively abbreviated "SAFE".


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