Justice for Food Workers

It is impossible to imagine a world without the people who who plant, pick, prepare and serve our food. Many of these people are immigrants who come here for a better life, but are often taken advantage of, paid low wages and are forced to work in unhealthy conditions. Lucas Benitez, Co-Director of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers will speak about Justice for Food Workers; one of the Three Pillars of the BFC.

Stephanie Berzon
Justice for Food and Farm Workers
Written by Richard Mandelbaum for the Brooklyn Food Coalition

Food and farm workers are among the lowest paid and most highly exploited workers all over the world. This includes the 20 million food workers in the United States and right here in our towns and neighborhoods.
From harvesting crops to waiting tables, , food workers are frequently denied basic rights and protections given to other occupations under federal law. For example, the U.S. has restricted child labor for decades, but over 400,000 children currently work in agriculture(2) in the U.S., and over 68 million worldwide. Both children and adult farmworkers regularly work under dangerous conditions, including being exposed to toxic chemicals.(6) and dangerous machinery. Closer to home, the cooks and dishwashers who work in your neighborhood restaurants typically make minimum wage, and the waiters and waitresses are exempt from the federal minimum wage. Their base salary is only $2.13 an hour, and they have to make up the rest with tips. So it may not be surprising that restaurant workers’ average salary is $15,000 a year– and 9 out of 10 lack employer-sponsored health insurance. (9b)

Conditions are not any better for those workers who work in food warehouses, processing plants, and distribution. Almost a quarter of grocery store workers are not even paid minimum wage. Meatpacking workers suffer from worksite injuries at twice the national rate. (2) In one recent year (2008), 100 poultry workers died on the job and over 300,000 were injured. It’s also common for workers to have their wages stolen or withheld by their bosses.(11)

The food system is dominated by immigrant workers.
Many U.S. government policies give massive breaks to giant corporate farms which drive out smaller farms here and abroad. Since immigrants can no longer work in their homeland, they need to migrate to the U.S. in order to feed their families.(5) At the same time, the U.S. government has cracked down on immigration by tightening the border and increasing deportations-making life for undocumented workers very risky. They often have no choice about working long hours with little pay, because their bosses can threaten to report them at any time. Even if workers get legal Guest worker visas, they do little to protect their fundamental rights. (4)

The struggle for just working conditions by food and farm workers is deeply linked to issues of race, class, and gender.
Three-fourths of all managers in the food system are white, while most low-wage workers are people of color. Women of color suffer the most from wage discrimination, earning half as much as their white male co-workers. (1) Overall seven of the ten worst paying jobs in the U.S. are food system jobs. (2)

Paying workers living wages and ensuring safe and fair working conditions does not have to be in competition with the struggle for food access.
In the U.S. people spend over $1 trillion per year on food, (12) yet only a tiny percentage of the consumer’s “food dollar” goes toward wages for workers. For example, out of every dollar spent on apples, only 5-6 cents goes to the workers who picked them. One study conducted by the University of California found that farmworkers’ wages could be increased by 40% if the average family would pay a mere $9 extra per year for fresh produce. (7) We should not build a cheap food supply on the backs of exploited workers. Ultimately the struggle for food access needs to include living wages for all people. In this way people will be able to afford healthy food without having to make sacrifices in other parts of their lives.

Supporting workers is not only the right thing to do. It will also help to protect ourselves as consumers as well. Employers who violate workers’ rights are often violating other laws, from pesticide regulations to food safety laws. (2) When any workers’ rights have been systematically denied, none of our rights are truly secure.

Ways we can support the struggle for food and farm workers’ justice include:

  • Support unionization and organizing efforts. This includes small, local unions and grassroots community organizations to larger union efforts.
  • Support coalitions such as the Food Chain Workers Alliance (2) that are pushing for systemic change.
  • Reward progressive farmers and employers who are doing the right thing. Support innovative initiatives such as ROC-United’s National Diners’ Guide (9a) and the Agricultural Justice Project’ Food Justice Certified label. (10)
  • Support strategic alliances that are bringing together employers and workers, such as the Domestic Fair Trade Association. (8)
  • Pressure our legislators for needed local, state, and federal policy change.


Reference and Resources

1. Applied Research Center, The Color of Food: http://bit.ly/zOkQcL

2. Food Chain Workers Alliance: http://bit.ly/AgfMCP

3. “Race Based Discrimination Against Farm Workers Under Federal Unemployment Insurance”, by Marc Linder and Laurence Norton, University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Volume 29, Issues 1&2, Fall 1995 and Winter 1996

4. Southern Poverty Law Center, Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States:

5. “Mexico May Lose 350,000 Farm Jobs, Lopez Aguilar Says”, Bloomberg News, January 3, 2008:

6. International Labor Organization, The impact of pesticide exposure on child laborers in agriculture:

7. How We Eat, Rural Migration News, University of California- Davis: http://bit.ly/wtniFY

8. Domestic Fair Trade Association: http://bit.ly/wtniFY

9. ROC-United

a. National Diners Guide: http://bit.ly/wtniFY

b. Raise the Tipped Minimum Wage: http://bit.ly/z2T8rk

10. Agricultural Justice Project: http://bit.ly/z1t31e

11. Human Rights from Field to Fork: Improving Labor Conditions for Food-sector Workers by Organizing Across Boundaries, Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Context, Joann Lo and Ariel Jacobson: http://bit.ly/xKYL4v (pdf download)

12. US food Industry Overview, Plunkett Research Ltd: http://bit.ly/x8z7sb

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