When you dine out at restaurants or cruise through the aisles of a grocery store, your eye is on the prize: filling your stomach—or pantry—with your favorite foods. Little thought is given to those who actually harvest, prepare, serve, and sell what you choose. Yet, those workers constitute one-sixth of the nation’s workforce, and according to a new report, they’re among the most exploited.
The Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), a coalition of 14 organizations and unions representing food workers on farms and in slaughterhouses, processing plants, canneries, restaurants, and grocery stores, surveyed hundreds of food-system workers and their employers in the United States. The result of their efforts? “The Hands That Feed Us,” a report that exposes the unfair and even unhealthy conditions that exist in the U.S. Still taking your plate for granted? You might not after you read these six startling foodie facts.
#1: Food workers can’t afford food. As paradoxical as it sounds, the food industry’s employees actually risk going hungry. “There are higher levels of food insecurity compared to the general workforce, which is ironic because the workers who produce and serve our food aren’t able to buy healthy and nutritious food for themselves,” says FCWA director Joann Lo. Food-system workers use food stamps at a rate that is twice that of the rest of the U.S. workforce.
What you can do: Do your research. The nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) has put together a National Diners’ Guide that ranks the nation’s 150 most popular restaurant chains based on how they treat their workers, such as how well they pay their employees and whether they provide basic benefits like sick days.
#2: Food workers live in poverty while the food industry rakes in profits. The food industry represents 13 percent of the U.S. economy—no small amount—and it’s grown at a rate of 135 percent since 1990. Yet, shockingly enough, only 13.5 percent of the surveyed food workers earn enough money to support a stable lifestyle. More than 86 percent of surveyed workers live on wages that are classified as low or poverty level.
What you can do: Let retailers and restaurant owners know that you are truly concerned about their employees’ welfare. And don’t be afraid to get involved politically. Lo is urging consumers to contact their representatives in Congress to support the Rebuild America Act, a proposal that would increase the tipped minimum wage (the amount restaurant owners are required to pay before employees receive tips) from its current $2.13 per hour—where it’s been for 20 years, Lo adds—to at least $5.50 per hour.
#3: Poorly paid workers are making you sick—literally. When food-system workers fall ill, they are out of luck. Sixty percent of workers don’t have the luxury of having any paid sick days, and 19 percent employees are unaware if they’re even entitled to them in the first place. What’s more disturbing is that more than half of workers surveyed continued to handle and serve food while sick, upping your risk for foodborne illness. Most workers reported working an average of three days while ill. “Many go to work sick because they can’t afford not to, and that’s not good for our public health,” says Lo. To make matters worse, employees often reported not having access to basic hygiene equipment that would facilitate a clean food supply. Ten percent reported not having a working toilet at work, and 4.5 percent reported not having access to sinks with soap and running water for hand washing. Of those groups, a majority were farmworkers and those who work in meat-processing facilities.
What you can do: When food workers don’t benefit from sanitary working conditions and health benefits, such as sick days, we all suffer. Another measure before Congress, the Healthy Families Act, would require employers to provide paid sick leave. Another reason to get your Congressmen on the phone: Let him know you want food workers to stay healthy so the food supply can, too.
#4: Child labor isn’t a thing of the past. The report revealed that 23.2 percent of the surveyed food workers observed approximately 10 to 20 minors laboring in their workplace. Though it’s not always illegal, it’s highly dangerous. The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs has reported in the past that as many as 500,000 children work in fields and orchards, being exposed to toxic pesticides linked to hormone disruption, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and neurological disorders.
What you can do: Buy organic to support a system that protects adults and children alike from toxic substances. And find a local farmer who’s forthright about the atmosphere he or she provides for employees. If you know where your food comes from and who is preparing it, you’ll be able to enjoy it even more.
#5: Career advancement? What’s that? In the food industry, segregation and discrimination still exist, and blacks and Latinos primarily hold the lowest-wage jobs. In food processing and distribution, whites make, on average, $3.07 more per hour than black workers. The poor working conditions and bad wages deter people from staying in the industry, the report found. One-third leave after five years, so climbing up the career ladder is essentially impossible. While almost half of food-chain managers were white, less than 10 percent of minority workers were employed in similar occupations, according to the report.
What you can do: Follow groups who are working for a more equitable food chain and can alert you to businesses that are discriminating against workers, and those that are working for good. A few mentioned in the report are the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, Warehouse Workers for Justice, OUR Walmart, and Focus on the Food Chain/Brandworkers International.
#6: Food with a “feel good” halo isn’t always kinder to workers. Foods advertised as sustainable, organic, Kosher, or any other commendable title are undoubtedly better than standard factory-farmed or processed fare in many ways. But those labels don’t always ensure equity for workers. The report called out the Darden Corporation, the largest full-service restaurant company in the world, which has made great strides in offering nutrition-friendly children’s dining options at Olive Garden, one of its larger chains. But not all of its food-service workers get sick days, and in 2011 one Darden employee had no choice but to work while stricken with hepatitis A. The result? Three thousand people had to undergo testing to ensure they hadn’t been infected.
The report also highlighted more than a few Kosher-certified factories and slaughterhouses that have been sued by workers for wage theft, unpaid overtime, and dangerous working conditions. Another target: Wild Edibles, Inc. (the top seafood retail and wholesaler in New York), which prides itself on providing sustainable seafood. However, its workers had been frequent victims of wage theft, lack of safety equipment, and foul management.
What you can do: There are a lot of sustainable food companies doing a lot of great things to lessen their impact on the environment and improve working conditions for low-wage workers. But just know that the two don’t always go hand in hand. Before dining or buying from companies that tout themselves as sustainable or health conscious, make sure they have the same concern and attention for their employees as they do their food.
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