Making Sure the Food Industry Works for its Employees

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This is the first in a series of blogs Nourishing the Planet will be writing about workers in the food system.

There is a growing awareness about the importance of making food choices that are both good for our bodies and for the environment. Organic and locally grown food are increasingly popular among foodies, as are the grocery stores and farmers markets that sell it. But, as a recent article from Food First highlights, one link missing from this socially and environmentally conscious food chain is the workers who grow, process, prepare, and serve that food—and who are often underpaid and mistreated.

Food preparation and serving related jobs are the lowest paid of any industry, meaning that food and agricultural workers often can't afford to buy food. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Many people employed by the food industry are unable to afford the price of the very food they prepare and serve. Food preparation and serving related jobs are the lowest paid of any industry, meaning that food and agricultural workers often can’t afford to buy food–in 2007, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that 45 percent of farm workers were found to be food insecure and 48 percent were on food stamps.

In addition, the threat of deportation and aggressive anti-union campaigns help to exploit and isolate undocumented immigrants, the most vulnerable—and fastest growing—sector of workers in food preparation and service. In the meatpacking industry alone, 20 to 50 percent of workers are undocumented and research from 2006 showed that 24 percent of farm workers, 12 percent of food preparation workers, and 27 percent of butchers and food processors were also undocumented.  Meanwhile, nationwide, union density has dropped from 35 percent in the 1940’s to the current 12 percent.

While state laws—such as the recent one passed in Arizona demanding the arrest of people unable to produce documentation of citizenship— call for harsh punishment for undocumented laborers, the food industry benefits from the unequal dynamic between these same workers and their employers. In California, for example, undocumented workers “gross economic contribution through sales, income, and property taxes, was $45,000/person (including children) in 1994.” But the workers themselves each made on average, only $8,840 per year.

If the mainstream media isn’t yet talking about the injustice in the food industry’s treatment of food and agriculture workers, then workers, farmers, and other activists are taking up the call themselves.  In Florida, for example, The Coalition of Immokalee Workers— a community-based organization comprised mainly of Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs in Florida— is working to promote fair wage, improved safety regulations, and the right to organize on the job, among others. In California, Swanton Berry Farms, an organic farm that promotes fair labor practices, makes sure all of its employees are members of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) affiliated union, United Farm Workers of America (UFW). And nation-wide, the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of worker-based organizations that include the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, is working to promote fair wages and working conditions for all members of the food industry.

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