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People Like Us: Food Chain Workers Speak Out

By: Roni Neff

“When you buy meat, think about [how] that meat is coming from the hands of people like us who are being humiliated in the workplace.”

The woman who spoke these words, and asked not to be identified for fear of employer reprisal, works in a meatpacking plant and took a considerable risk to share her emotional story at a conference.  A single mother of four, she said, “We live it every day,” referring to the lack of sick leave; not being allowed to go to the bathroom; being laughed at for not speaking English; and lifting heavy things even though she is not supposed to.  “But I have to,” she said tearfully. “I need to work.”

The conference, held yesterday at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, marked the release of the landmark report, The Hands that feed us: Challenges and opportunities for workers along the food chain. It was the first such conference to bring together workers from around the food system, from farm to processing to distribution to retail to restaurants, highlighting their many shared concerns.

I originally came into food system work via the connection to my occupational safety and health work, and I found the conference both exciting and heartening.  When we talk about changing the food system, changing conditions for these workers has to be part of the equation. (See this wonderful video trailer on that topic.) The way our food system dumps on workers is one of its deepest flaws.

Uylonda Dickerson, a former warehouse worker, said she often went to work sick. She said that at one point her supervisor started timing her in the bathroom.  So she stopped going to the bathroom at work.  She ended up with a bladder infection and passed out at work.  Still, she was told, if you don’t come in, you are fired.  As her employer explained: “there are four people waiting for your position.  Your personal problems are not my problems.”

Speakers from different industries underlined common themes in their experiences.  The report adds data to these stories, and addresses the issue of food system workers from numerous angles.  Here are a few of the most disturbing quantitative findings from public data and their surveys.

Health

  • 79 percent of food system workers reported having no paid sick days (or didn’t know), and 53 percent have worked while sick.  (This, of course, has implications not only for their own health but also for food safety and community health.)
  • In agriculture, 13 percent had no clean drinking water on the job, 23 percent had no clean toilets and 18 percent did not have a sink, soap and running water.
  • 58 percent have no health insurance, while another 28 percent receive Medicaid (meaning, in addition to the costs and stresses they experience, that the public is paying for their employers’ omissions)

Health and Safety on the job

  • 53 percent reported not receiving health and safety training
  • 33 percent were not given proper equipment
  • 22 percent “did something that put their own safety at risk”
  • 57 percent experienced an injury or health problem at work (indeed, food system industries have some of the highest injury, illness and fatality rates in the country)

Wages

  • The eight food system CEOs who are among the nation’s top-paid 100 CEOs will make the same amount in 2012 as 10,300 food service workers combined.
  • 23 percent of workers earn less than the minimum wage, and an additional 37.6 percent earn a poverty wage.

Food Security

  • 30.5 percent have “very low” to “marginal” food security.
  • 14 percent receive SNAP benefits (as Farm Bill budget cutting was discussed, a common, and important, message was: “If you don’t want to expand SNAP, pay workers a living wage.”)

What can we do?

Numerous approaches were discussed, many underway.  A key need is to build alliances between those working for a healthier food system and the labor and worker movements.

I was particularly inspired by a session on changing government procurement contracts so that businesses would be to required to treat workers fairly as a condition of receiving contracts.  As Liana Foxvog of the International Labor Rights Forum said, “Right now you are more likely to get a government contract if you abuse your workers than if you treat them well,” because of the policy pressure to seek the lowest bid.  Interestingly, the federal government has a greater opportunity to use its procurement power in agriculture than in other areas, because agriculture is excluded from the National Labor Relations Act [which regardless of this one benefit, needs to be changed] — and thus, it is possible to take action without the threat of interfering with labor law.  Speakers described several current efforts to obtain such conditions as part of contracts.  This is a promising direction for future action to address the problem and an area ripe for collaboration with other healthy food system efforts.

At the end of the day, the organizers Skyped in a group of crawfish workers from Louisiana who were producing for Walmart.  They described to us incidents such as being locked in, and being physically assaulted after asking for a break.  One worker went to the police. The result: threats to the worker’s family.  These workers had gone on strike today, with the aim of exposing forced labor and forced overtime.  At the end of the call, they announced that Walmart had responded and agreed to launch an investigation of their employer, CJ Seafood.  The audience broke out into cheers and cries of “Si, se puede!”  Next to me, a participant said, “Walmart!? What happened to the Department of Justice?”  Indeed!

But, it’s a start and an empowering one.  As one speaker summed up: we are doing great; the ball is now on the field. But it’s a long way to the goal.

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