Five Challenges Faced by Food Workers

by Peter Hanlon

Published: 1/06/17, Last updated: 5/24/19

Late last year, the Food Chain Workers Alliance released a report (No Piece of the Pie: US Food Workers in 2016) documenting the conditions faced by workers throughout the US food chain. The picture the statistics paint is eye-opening. In short, the food system work force is massive, underpaid, discriminated against and often exposed to dangerous conditions. However, the Alliance provides numerous suggestions for how policymakers and individuals can help food chain workers win safer and more equitable working conditions. Below we’ve pulled five major takeaways from the report, and five ways that individuals can make a difference.

One note: Be sure to move beyond the statistics and read the report’s interviews with 20 food chain workers to get a personal perspective on the challenges facing the people who produce our food.

Five Issues Faced by Food Workers

1. The Food System Is the Largest Employment Sector in the US, and it’s Growing.

There are 21.5 million workers in the food chain, including food production, processing, distribution, retail and service. This massive number of food system workers grew by 13 percent from 2010 to 2016, and now over one out of seven workers in the US works within the food system.

2. The Food System Doesn’t Pay Well.

The vast majority of the 21.5 million food chain jobs are low-wage. The median hourly wages for workers in the food system is the lowest in the US economy at $10 per hour, while annual wages are the third lowest at $16,000 per year. The result is that food chain workers rely on public assistance programs for basic needs — including food — at a greater rate than workers in other industries.

3. The Food Chain Work Force Is Diverse, Except at the Top.

Nearly 40 percent of food workers were people of color in 2014, but almost three-quarters of chief executive officers in the food industry were white men. At the management level there is little improvement, with 70 percent of positions filled by white men. Unsurprisingly, this pattern of inequality in the food system that keeps women and people of color out of higher wage positions also produces significant wage gaps; at its worst 36 cents earned by a Native American woman for every dollar earned by a white man.

4. Rates of Injury Are Increasing, and Probably Undercounted.

Federal statistics from 2014 show that the average rate of injuries for agricultural and food manufacturing workers are 5.5 and 5.1 cases per 100 workers, much higher than the average for private industries at 3.2 cases. For workers in food industries with particularly high rates of injuries, like animal and crop production, injury rates have increased since 2010 despite a decrease for workers overall in other industries. Worse, interviews with food chain workers indicate that because the federal standards for counting workplace injuries are too narrow, the rates of injury in the food system could be much higher than reported.

5. Unions Are Fading.

The food system is no exception when it comes to the steady decrease in the number of unionized workers in the US. Food production and service have always had low union membership, but traditional union strongholds along the food chain including the food processing, distribution and retail sectors have seen large declines in union membership over the past 30 years. Today, only six percent of workers in the food chain are members of a labor union.

Five Things You Can Do

1. Think Food Justice, Not Just Good Food.

If you’re reading this post, the chances are good that you’re interested in food that’s sustainably produced, in-season and follows high animal welfare standards. We should build upon this good food movement and include good jobs by challenging the low wages and poor conditions that characterize the food system.

2. Talk About Food Workers.

Everyone loves to talk about food, but rarely do we talk about conditions for food workers. The fact is many people are simply unaware of the issues that workers face. If your conversation ever steers towards local, organic and sustainable food, it’s a perfect opportunity to also raise the issues described above about the people who produce, process and prepare the food that we all eat.

3. Food System Workers Need Your Help.

We can each have a powerful role in helping food chain workers fight for better pay and working conditions. Consider attending a rally, signing a petition, speaking to an employer or using social media to spread the word.

4. Look for Labels.

The food choices you make can have a positive impact for food chain workers. When you shop look for products that feature certified labels that indicate fair trade, union-made or high labor standards.

5. Know Where Your Representatives Stand.

Policymakers obviously have a big role in ensuring the rights and safety of food chain workers, from labor laws to anti-wage theft bills to procurement policies. Get to know where your elected officials stand on food justice issues by reviewing their websites, attending their public meetings and signing up for updates from the Food Chain Workers Alliance.

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