catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 21 :: 2005.11.18 — 2005.12.01


Christians circle the Burger King's castle

One minute she was flipping Whopper patties, the next she was sent out the back door into a hot night in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The fast food monarch locked the door behind her and she was newly unemployed and facing financial desperation.

Twenty-six other workers were likewise dispensed without just cause or compensation last year by Burger King and a few of its fast food corporate siblings?all owned in Honduras by INTUR. The company was reportedly reacting to rumors the workers were organizing to resist measures including unpaid overtime and having to pay for their uniforms out of already scant earnings.

However the corporate King never counted on the seemingly defenseless workers gaining the allegiance of a highly competent Christian legal aid organization?Association for a More Just Society?and the support of prayerful protestors at Burger King outlets in 16 cities in the US and Canada this past April.

They never counted on the fact that I would be standing in a BK parking lot in Winnipeg, Canada holding a sign that read “The Burger King Turfs his Serfs.” (I had never really expected that myself.) But there I was, because I believe the Christian faith should be relevant in a fast food parking lot and because those 27 workers should be able to turn to the international faith community for support.

Now the scenario has switched from INTUR man-handling a couple dozen disenfranchised Hondurans to BK dealing with the globalization of the social gospel. To me, the action of the group I was with, and similar groups in cities from New York to L.A., was a sacrament for an age of transnational injustice; a small sign of God’s love in a world of fast food and Central American poverty.

A twist and smirk

Having left the formality of the sanctuary (which has its place) for the drama of the parking lot, our rag-tag ritual was a fine, fun time. “The Christian message should have something incisive and redemptive to say in response to the wrongdoings of big companies,” says Karen Schlichting, our head-cheerleader, “but you gotta say it with a twist and a smirk.”

And people?the kind of average folk who frequent cultural quick stops like Burger King?were surprisingly receptive to the message. As I watched Karen gather petition signatures in the drive-thru lane, I got the sense that redemptive messages can compete well with the societal hunger for Whoppers.

The demonstrations?or “rituals of change,” if you prefer?rise out of the work of the Tegucigalpa-based Association for a More Just Society (AJS) which is working on behalf of the fired workers. The BK rituals were a way for AJS to bridge its Honduran work and the North American churches to which it is linked, particularly the Christian Reformed faith community.

Competence and compassion

My respect for the work of AJS was piqued in 2003 when my wife and I accompanied AJS staff, led by a Honduran lawyer, on a trek to a remote indigenous village which was facing an illegal land grab.

From a faith grounding, AJS works in the legislative and judicial arenas, promotes democratic participation of churches, and publishes investigative journalism. It’s a combination of competence and compassion which they apply to everything from drunk driving laws to provision of drinking water in poor neighborhoods.

A sister organization, AJS-U.S., works to educate people abroad and provide a network of support for the work in Honduras. AJS is staking out some distinctive territory in the ethical commons.

Kurt Ver Beek, co-founder and board member, says they want to continue to use the model of mobilizing northern Christians to act prayerfully when North American-based companies engage in dubious activity in Honduras.

“The greatest atrocity in our times” is the fact of “a few living in extreme luxury while others who work hard can not even eat,” says Ver Beek, a Calvin College professor based in Honduras. He hopes history will record Christians as among those who did not just stand by but who stood up against this atrocity.

In the Burger King case, AJS hopes to set a legal precedent for vulnerable Honduran workers. Elizabeth Ninomiya, a Burger King spokeswoman in Miami, says the company has heard from AJS and communicated with INTUR regarding the situation. Ninomiya would not comment on whether INTUR would face any sanction from Burger King if found guilty in the proceedings currently before the Honduran courts. INTUR has threatened legal action against AJS for potentially hurting Whopper sales. But the intimidation tactic seems to serve more as an encouragement for AJS.

Given AJS’s track record on other issues and their international connections, the organization will undoubtedly leave a mark on the climate in which poor Hondurans work and live.



Will Braun is editor of Geez Magazine. He writes from Winnipeg, Canada. A version of this article first appeared in The Banner.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus