Labor in the Food System--An overview of Food First's Plans
Workers throughout the food supply chain are under-paid and under-protected. Last year, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics listed food preparation and serving-related occupations as the lowest paid of all occupational categories ($8.59 median wage) followed by farming, fishing and forestry occupations ($9.34 median wage). The same report shows that food-manufacturing workers have been hit disproportionately hard with mass layoffs during this economic recession (USBLS). According to Oxfam, in 2004 farm-workers suffer higher rates of toxic chemical injuries on the job than workers in any other sector of the U.S. economy, with an estimated 300,000 farm workers suffering pesticide poisonings each year. Also impacting job conditions over the years, union representation has dropped from 35% to 12% since World War II, (unionized workers in the retail food industry, for example, make 31% more than their non-union counterparts). Perhaps most tragically, food workers are amongst those most plagued by food insecurity. As labor is struggling, corporate food revenues remain strong and market consolidation continues. Despite the recession, only one of the 27 largest food-manufacturing companies reported a decrease in sales and 16 reported and increase in net income in 2007. The top ten US-based multinational corporations are responsible for over half of all food and beverage sales in the US. According to the dominant business model, workers – seen as highly disposable – are the first to go in order to buffer the effects of the recession and cushion profits. Given the low wages and slim benefits, even workers who can hold onto their jobs are turning to public assistance programs and taking on high levels of debt. And ironically, the workers who are handling, serving, and growing food all day long, are hardly making enough to feed themselves and their families. In 2007 USDA research shows that 15.8% of U.S. households with children were food insecure at some time during the year. Though this research does not indicate which occupations are most prone to food insecurity, it does say job opportunities, wage rates and work supports (public assistance programs and benefits) are key determinants of food security. Clearly further research is needed regarding how low wage rates and poor working conditions in the food sector threaten workers’ food security. Moreover, studies indicate a diet of cheap food is in turn causing higher rates of diet related illnesses and obesity among low-wage, food system workers. Workers and taxpayers are shouldering the real costs of the current food system. Labor and Immigration law reinforce a pro-employer climate. Financial disincentives for violating the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA) are minimal. As a result, firing, demoting, or retaliating against workers who try to organize, are common labor abuses. The fines incurred are seen by large firms as the cost of doing business, and do not lead to changes in unfair labor practices. Immigration policy also greatly shapes the US labor market. The employer sanctions introduced in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, link one’s legal status to one’s job, criminalizing undocumented labor. Firing and deportation can then be used to threaten or dispose of workers who speak out against labor abuses or attempt to organize. Workers pay the price of employer sanctions with their jobs or by putting up with exploitation. Meanwhile advocates on both sides of the immigration debate have noted that the number of employers who are actually fined for violations is strikingly low, and the use of undocumented labor is remarkably profitable. In California undocumented immigrants’ gross economic contribution through sales, income, and property taxes, was $45,000/person (including children) in 1994. Yet the workers were paid and average of $8,840 each. The difference is profit that goes directly to industries (like agriculture and food processing) employing largely undocumented workers. Documented immigrant workers are also exploited via guest worker programs, which create a second class of workers with few protections under the law. This labor import scheme is used like a faucet to maintain a labor surplus and keep labor costs down. While politicians label immigrants as “criminals,” little attention is paid to the ways industries like agriculture, food processing, food retail or fast food, lobby for and rely upon a consistent supply of second-class workers, who are easily exploited. Nor is enough attention paid to the economic forces that drive people to migrate in the first place. Free trade policies ensure a steady flow of capital from South to North, bankrupting rural economies, widening the gap between the rich and poor, and in the process, driving millions to migrate.While this systematic exploitation of immigrant labor is not new to the food system, particularly in the agricultural sector, where over three quarters of US workers are foreign-born and over half are undocumented (Oxfam 2004), immigrant labor has increased in recent decades, across all food production, processing, packaging, service and retail sales sectors. The results: lower wages for documented and undocumented workers alike. In order to achieve a more equitable food system, the criminalization of workers, enforced inequality, and the use of immigration policy as a supply system for exploited labor, all need to be addressed. A fair share for food workers is the foundation of a sustainable food system.Food Workers – Food JusticeFood First is launching a new collaborative program to build convergence among labor, food and immigration activists. We will work with activists and scholars from the food justice, immigrant rights and labor movements to carry out research that builds strong alliances and informs sound, integrated food policy. We have invited a core group of scholars and activists from these three issue areas to participate in this project. We will work directly with labor centers and immigration researchers to generate information and analysis. By strengthening these links, we will amplify the voices of these three movements and seek out convergence around the issue of labor in the food system.Based on our research we will publish a Backgrounder, a Development Report, a Policy Brief, journal articles, and a book; organize a conference and seek out community forums, congressional hearings, food policy councils, labor councils, and university classes in order to disperse and share our findings. Specifically, this program will address the following issue areas:• Who & what? Develop a clear picture of who fills food system jobs; organize data on what working conditions look like in all sectors, from the farm, to the factory to the fast food restaurant. Information of labor abuse and bad job conditions in food related jobs certainly exists: agricultural work is the most dangerous occupation in the nation (32.5 of every 100,000 farm workers die on the job) ; 25% of grocery workers experience minimum wage violations (based on a National Employment Law Project study in three major cities); real wages for meatpacking workers have fallen from $20/hr in 1977 to $10.50/hr in 2001, while injury rates for shop floor workers are at 25% - one of the highest in the nation. However, most of the research and documentation of labor issues in the food system is done at the occupational or single product supply chain level. System-wide analysis is needed to flesh out our understanding of the most pressing issues and to inform systematic policy change. The link between corporate concentration and labor abuse must be clarified. Particular attention will be paid to the issue of immigration and the use of migrant labor as corporate strategy. We will map out the accumulation of wealth in the food supply chain, and the proportion that goes to workers, in order to debunk the myth that better labor conditions necessarily mean much higher food prices. Research by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, for example indicates that pay to food production workers accounts for only about 4 percent of consumer costs. If that is correct, a 50 percent increase in wages would cause only a 2% increase in consumer prices. A better understanding of exactly where government funds, taxpayer contributions and consumer spending, are flowing can also help reduce the perceived tension between labor conditions and food prices. • Food workers without enough food? Research conducted in 2007 by the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS) on “hunger in the fields” of Fresno County CA, found that 45% of farm workers participating in the study were experiencing food insecurity and 48% of those surveyed were using food stamps. A prior survey done in 1999 of approximately 1,000 agricultural workers in six major farming regions throughout California also by CIRS found that 81% of male respondents and 76% of the female respondents were overweight and 28% and 37% respectively were obese. Clearly these findings are geographically limited, yet they point out that the tragic irony of obese, hungry, farm workers is very real and warrants further research and attention on a broader scale. There is also no reason to believe the low wage jobs found throughout the food supply chain don’t leave workers in similar situations of food insecurity. This program intends to explore how labor is affected by the structure of the food system. Investigate the prevalence of food insecurity among food workers and their use of public assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps; and track the costs to taxpayers of the current compensation structure in the food industry.• Good jobs from farm to fork! Good jobs must be re-inserted into the meaning of food justice and a sustainable food system. Though food labor is commonly associated with farm labor, we need to address the quality of jobs at all levels of the food supply chain in order to truly achieve sustainability. As more ecological and healthy forms of producing food are explored we need to consider the impact of those alternatives on jobs. Can sustainable agriculture sustain employment? How can healthier, more environmentally sound food options also provide better farm, manufacturing, sales and service jobs or alternative employment? We will address the question of workplace fairness at every point from farm to fork and every job in between. Further we will critically assess the role of workers in alternatives to the dominant food system, insisting that job creation and quality are a factor in the measurement of sustainability.This program area will shed light on a part of the food system that is often overlooked, yet is essential to a just, sustainable future. Food First’s history of critical research and effective coalition building will offer a strong foundation for a real understanding of labor and immigration in the food system and the paths to convergence with the existing food movements.