The Top 10 Reasons We Should Care About Food Workers

Guest Post by Michele Simon, Appetite for Profit

With the release of Saru Jayaraman’s new book, Behind the Kitchen Door, I’ve been writing about the powerful influence of the National Restaurant Association, for example, in lobbying against paid sick days for workers. Sadly, most of my colleagues in public health and the good food movement don’t pay enough attention to the many injustices workers face every day. So here is my attempt to help correct that situation.

1. Millions of Your Fellow Humans. Maybe this number alone will convince you: 20 million workers toil every day—often under inhumane conditions—harvesting fields, killing and cutting up animals, packing boxes, driving trucks, cooking meals, ringing up orders, serving tables, and cleaning up your mess.

2. Worker Conditions Tied to Food Safety. Research has shown a connection between worker conditions and food safety. For example, speeding up lines in slaughterhouses puts food at higher risk for contamination, and endangers worker safety. Also, workers who experience labor violations in restaurants are more likely to be forced to perform duties that might harm consumers. So better treatment of workers in the fields, in meat packing plants, and in other settings means safer food for everyone.

3. Sick Workers Mean Sick Customers. As I wrote about before, the health of restaurant workers is especially tied to food safety. Obviously it’s not a good thing for restaurant workers to be sneezing all over your meals. That’s why we need to support paid sick days for all workers.

4. Workers Risk Lifelong Injuries. While many food-related jobs are backbreaking work, meatpacking plants are especially notorious for being extremely dangerous places to work. If you care about how animals are treated on factory farms, you should also care about the workers suffering along with them.

5. Farm Workers Exposed to Pesticides. While most foodies are concerned about their own exposure to pesticides and other harmful chemicals used in agriculture, remember those most at risk are the farm workers who have to spray the crops and work in the fields. In other words, it’s not enough to just buy organic, we need policies that protect workers too.

6. Food Workers Living in Poverty. According to this must-read report from the Food Chain Workers Alliance, The Hands that Feed Us, “more than 86 percent of workers reported earning sub-minimum, poverty, and low wages.” If you only care about how this effects you, consider that nearly 28% of food system employees are on Medicaid, more than a third use the emergency room for primary care, and especially tragic is how food system workers use food stamps at 1.5 times the rate of others U.S. workers. In other words, the low standard of living suffered by most food workers effects us all through higher insurance costs and taxpayer programs. This is a fancy way of saying we are all subsidizing an industry that pays its workers slave wages.

7. Wage Theft. While I obviously live a privileged life, I like to consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the plight of those less fortunate. However, “wage theft” is a term I am ashamed to admit I only heard of fairly recently, in relation to farm workers and others working in the food system. (Of course, it can apply to any work sector.) It means exactly what it says: that employers simply fail to pay what their workers rightfully earned. It’s commonplace with immigrant workers who often have no recourse to complain.

8. Race and Gender Discrimination. Also applicable to the workplace in general, but in her book, Jayaraman paints an especially dire situation in restaurants, where women and workers of color are often not promoted to higher-paying positions. The Darden Group, which owns such chains as Olive Garden and Red Lobster has been hit with a class action for discriminating against workers in its Capital Grille outlets, along with wage theft and other labor law violations.

9. Healthy Food Is More Than Nutrition. One of the most troubling short-comings among many of my public health colleagues is to only see “healthy food” in terms of fiber grams and vitamins. This is far too narrow a lens for many reasons, including the moral obligation to also care about how the food was grown, raised, harvested, prepared, and served. This is why I cannot blindly support partnerships such as this one between Let’s Move and United Fresh (the trade association for fresh produce) to promote fruits and vegetables to children. We have to also ask how such a group treats its workers.

10. A Sustainable Food System Must Include Workers. Hopefully this is obvious by now, but we cannot talk about sustainability without including the workers, who are on the front lines of all the problems that food policy wonks complain about. Every public health, environmental, and animal welfare problem that has been written about for decades intersects with the plight of food workers. We need them to help inform our analysis and to help forge solutions. Also, as good food advocates, we have a moral obligation to help ensure they can live sustainable lives. We are in this fight together.

Have more reasons? Feel free to add them in the comments. Stay tuned for solutions and how to get involved to fix these problems.

Michele is a public health lawyer who has been researching and writing about the food industry and food politics since 1996. Visit her site at www.EatDrinkPolitics.com