5 Ways to Improve Workers’ Rights in the Food System

From foodtank.com, by Sarah Small
5 Ways to Improve Workers’ Rights in the Food System

Farmworkers, the foundation of the agricultural sector, are responsible for providing consumers with the vast selection of fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. Yet, according to Gerardo Chavez, an Immokalee, FL, farmworker, "A worker has to pick two and a quarter tons of tomatoes to make the equivalent of the minimum wage, and that’s in an average day of 10 hours." Unfortunately, unfair wages and treatment still exist in the food system.

There are more than 1 million farmworkers in the United States who work on the planting, cultivating, harvesting, and preparation of crops for markets. These hired workers make up less than one percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, however they play an essential role in feeding the world.

"[Farmworkers] are involved in the planting and the cultivation and the harvesting of the greatest abundance of food known in this society. They bring in so much food to feed you and me and the whole country and enough food to export to other places. The ironic thing and the tragic thing is that after they make this tremendous contribution, they don't have any money or any food left for themselves,” said Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW), during his fight for farm workers’ rights in the 1960s.

Fortunately, some significant strides have been made.

Food justice organizers recently reached an important agreement with Ben & Jerry’s to recognize the fundamental human rights of migrant workers in dairy supply chains. A statement by Ben & Jerry’s upheld the essential elements of the Milk With Dignity campaign, created by Migrant Justice and supported by other farm labor organizations such as Student Farmworker Alliance and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

And a Fast Food Wage Board appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to increase fast food workers’ wages incrementally across the state, representing a major victory for labor organizers and food justice champions. The US$15 minimum will be achieved in New York City by 2018 and the rest of the state by 2021, applying to establishments with more than 10 workers. The Commissioner of Labor in New York will enforce the panel’s recommendations, which will apply to 180,000 fast food workers in New York state, a third of which work in New York City.

“The Fight for $15 has showed me what’s possible when people stick and work together,” says Jorel Ware, a McDonald’s employee in New York City. #Fightfor15 is a campaign working for a US$15 minimum wage and unionization for workers in the fast food industry in the United States.

Worldwide, there are more than one billion people who are employed in the agricultural sector, according to the 2009 Global Employment Trends report of the International Labour Organization (ILO). This Labor Day, Food Tank is recognizing the social justice, equality, fair wages, and safety that all farm and food workers deserve.

Here are five critical campaigns fighting for the rights of workers in the food system.

1. Raise the U.S. Minimum Wage for Food and Restaurant Workers

In the U.S. minimum wage for tipped employees is only US$2.13 per hour. Some U.S. states, including Rhode Island, Washington, New York, and Oregon, have increased their minimum wages, but the struggle for living wages still exists.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) builds power and a voice for restaurant workers through organizing workplace justice campaigns, creating partnerships with restaurants, and improving industry-wide standards.

Eaters and consumers can support ROC by eating with more awareness and learning about the labor practices of favorite restaurants. And people can use the National Diner’s Guide every time they eat out to get information on the wages, benefits, and promotion packages of places they dine at.

One of ROC’s tips is to leave behind a note, as simple as “noticed you still pay the subminimum wage of $2.13/hour to your tipped workers, as a frequent customer I’d love to see that raised!”

2. Support the Foundation of the Agriculture Sector: Farmers

In the U.S., the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has built a membership of thousands of migrant farmworkers as a united voice and fight against injustice. Their successes include increasing wages and housing conditions. And the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) works internationally on three major campaigns including: The Campaign for Fair Food, The Fair Food Program, and the Anti-Slavery Campaign. CIW is a leader in worker-based human rights, the growing movement to end human trafficking, labor abuses, and modern-day slavery in agriculture. Their work has led to ground-breaking changes, including convincing Walmart to join the Fair Food Program.

Consumers can help by volunteering with FLOC to set up mobile health clinics for farm workers. CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food has ways for eaters to get involved in their home states, or learn about current campaigns.

3. Support Meat Packing and Processing Workers in the United States

There are more than 240,000 United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) members (as of 2011)  who work in the packing and food processing industry, producing everything from Tyson chicken fingers to Campbell’s Soup. In addition to helping get better wages and working conditions for their members, UFCW has submitted comments to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for 23 Tyson plants that use hazardous chemicals.

And UFCW has an educational program available to workers to help them determine if the plant they work at is in compliance with occupational safety and health standards and take action if it’s not.

The 2009 documentary Food Inc. went undercover with UFCW organizer, Eduardo Pena, at a Smithfield plant in North Carolina to help send the message to consumers that cheap ham and cold cuts—ham is just US$0.79 per pound—are only possible because immigrant workers have severely low wages. Ultimately, UFCW wants consumers to not only care about what they eat, but also care about the workers who process the food they eat each day. Consumers can take action by encouraging government reform of immigration laws and by signing up for UFCW’s Friday e-newsletter, The Weekender, with actions for the week.

4. Make the Transportation of Food Safer

More than 35,000 dairy, 60,000 food processing, 80,000 bakery and laundry, and thousands of other employees are united across the U.S. as part of the Teamsters. These workers produce and transport almost all the food consumers see at grocery stores.

Teamsters help protect the people who transport our food and make sure both the food and employees are safe through collective bargaining and enforcing contracts. They work on many campaigns, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would potentially hurt dairy workers by outsourcing jobs overseas. Teamster’s local members are standing up to House legislature and the American government to show the TPP will only benefit big business, lead to unsafe food on U.S. tables, and hurt the environment.

Eaters and consumers can sign up for action alerts on their website.

5. Give Fast Food Workers a Living Wage

Fast food workers are some of the lowest paid workers in the food system. The campaign, Fight for 15, is helping workers at McDonald’s and other fast food chains fight for a living wage. The campaign started a petition to increase wages to US$15 per hour, which has gather hundreds of thousands of signatures. Fast food is a US$200 billion a year industry and other campaigns, such as Unite Here!, are also working to increase the minimum wage for restaurant workers.

Unite Here! is the largest organization in North America representing food service workers including waiters, waitresses, cooks, and bartenders. Their Real Food Real Jobs Campaign is working to transform the low wage food service industry into one that provides affordable health care, retirement benefits, and respect. They also work to promote sustainable, fair food and eaters can join them by receiving campaign updates, while students can apply to be organizers as part of the Organizing Beyond Barriers Campaign.

This Labor Day, Food Tank gives gratitude to the more than one billion people who are critical to our food system. What other campaigns are fighting for social justice in the food system? We want to know! Send them to Danielle@foodtank.com.