Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Policy Point Wednesday: Food Workers in America

We can all be accused of blithely running to the grocery store or restaurant whenever we're running low on food, without considering the effort it took to get it there. Serious Eats recently linked a study by The Food Chain Workers Alliance about the lives of the people whose labor brings food to our plates.

Not surprisingly, the results are grim. Of the approximately 20 million workers in a booming industry, only about 13% earned a living wage; the large majority live at or below poverty level. Most have no opportunity for education or advancement. Food service workers use public assistance at a higher rate than the rest of the US workforce, and report a high rate of safety and other workplace violations. I, myself, worked in a restaurant where I was told to expect sexual harassment from my co-workers - my employer said I should be prepared to "handle it," clearly indicating they were aware but would do nothing about the problem; I am far from alone in this experience.

Workers in this industry perform a wide variety of tasks, from food production (planting, harvesting, husbandry) and processing (slaughtering, preparing, cooking) to distribution, retail and service. All of these tasks put these workers in direct contact with our food supply. Most have had to work when they were sick, because they don't have paid leave or access to healthcare. For these very reasons, when I was a server I often worked sick; I shudder to think what happened to my customers on those days. The health of our food workers cannot be overlooked when we discuss the safety of our national food supply.

Right now, the media tends to focus on large food corporations' effect on public health and the environment. This particular study suggests that these huge corporate entities are also a factor in substandard employment conditions, and a driver of poverty in the United States of America. For instance, production of the slicing tomato has been responsible for near-slavery and outright slave labor conditions in the tomato fields of Florida. The book Tomatoland discusses in detail how Florida tomato-pickers are subjected to unbelievable working conditions, from kidnapping and bondage to direct exposure to dangerous chemicals. I followed its author to support this excellent documentary project that details how tomatoes negatively affect the lives of the farm workers who pick them.  I encourage you to join me: the first step to addressing this injustice is to bring it to the light of day.

No comments:

Post a Comment