Why Workers’ Rights Are Key to a Sustainable Food System

by Maggie Tauranac

Published: 6/26/19, Last updated: 9/11/19

Consider the supply chain that every item in your supermarket cart had to go through to make it into your tote bag. At each stage, there is a human being on the other end, and often one who is not guaranteed stable work or healthcare and might be dependent on tips. We rely on these workers to ensure our prolific, global food supply.

The food sector is the largest source of employment in the United States. It consists of workers at every level of the supply chain: farmworkers, farm owners, ranchers, fisherpeople, slaughterhouse workers, processors, distributors, supermarket stockers, cashiers, restaurant and fast food workers, chefs, waiters, you name it.

Yet, these are some of the lowest paid jobs in the country and are often filled by undocumented immigrants who have little discourse to advocate for themselves for fear of being deported. This leaves these workers wide open to exploitation in the form of fair wages, healthcare, and physical or sexual abuse. It’s why Jose Oliva is Co-Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), a group which gives voice to food workers ensuring that they have equal say in the discourse around a sustainable food model. As a formerly undocumented restaurant worker, and a refugee from Guatamala, he brings a deep understanding of the issues that food chain workers face.

“My story is not unique,” Jose Oliva says. “It’s really the story of millions of economic or ‘food’ refugees from Latin America.”

Leaving Home

In 1985, Jose Oliva came to the United States as a Guatemalan refugee with his parents and younger brother. His mother had been accused of communism after she organized local parents to try and secure running water and electricity in the schoolhouse where she taught. Oliva was thirteen when they came to the US and says the transition was drastic; the night before they left Guatemala there had been a massacre upstream from their home in Xela and dead bodies had floated by his home, an experience he describes as “not uncommon.” The next day, he found himself a universe away from his home, surreally surrounded by life-sized Disney characters. His family had secured a tourist visa to visit the United States under the premise of going on vacation to Disneyworld. Jose Oliva lived undocumented in the United States for the next twenty years.

Working Undocumented in the United States

Finding employment as undocumented workers in the US was not easy for Oliva’s parents. His father worked inconsistent factory jobs in Chicago, but they rarely lasted longer than a few months. Despite being an educator for decades, Oliva’s mother struggled to find work in her field and ended up in the restaurant industry as a food runner. When Oliva visited her at work he was mesmerized; he describes the buzz and energy of being inside a restaurant full of influential people from all over the world. He was enamored with the speed and vibrancy of restaurant work. Yet, his mother was working for meager pay and, according to Oliva, was regularly sexually harassed by customers, managers and coworkers.

Fighting for Food Workers’ Rights

Years later, Oliva graduated from high school with aspirations to be an anthropologist examining genocide and studying our species’ tolerance for oppression. But when he realized that as an undocumented immigrant he did not qualify for scholarship money to pay for college, he began working restaurant jobs to pay for class credit. What started as a means to an end soon developed into an end in itself: a career examining the inequities of the American food system, specifically for laborers.

Improving Wages and Working Conditions with the Food Chain Workers Alliance

“The Food Chain Workers Alliance believes in a truly sustainable food system, one that can provide healthy and locally made food, and that has the potential to lift up communities, workers and our shared environment,” says Oliva, about the organization that is now celebrating its tenth anniversary. The organization fights for a democratically controlled food system with cooperatively owned food ventures that would bolster local economies and provide living wages. The goals are aspirational, but he argues that what has been missing in this fight until very recently has been the inclusion of workers in the conversation around sustainable food.

Celebrating Ten Years of the Food Chain Workers Alliance

The Food Chain Workers Alliance is a coalition of over 370,000 workers from multiple levels of the food supply chain who have used this collective power to represent the labor sector of the food system. Using textbook community organizing strategies, they have organized workers to get fair wages, been active in the Fight for $15, and succeeded in getting Good Food Purchasing Policy programs passed in cities across the country to use the power of institutional purchasing to prioritize environmental sustainability, animal welfare, worker conditions, public health and buying locally. FCWA works closely with the Health Environment Agriculture and Labor (HEAL) Food Alliance, which is a multisector organization of environmentalists, agriculturalists, public health advocates and food workers. FCWA represents the labor arm within this member-based organization. Together they are working to build the next generation of leaders to influence food policy changes from the inside.

The Role Food Played in the US Government Sponsored Coup in Guatemala

Oliva comes by his activism honestly. His grandfather fought alongside workers, women’s organizations and students to establish democracy in Guatemala in the 1940s, overthrowing the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico. During the next ten years in Guatemala, democratically elected leaders placed policies which introduced right to vote laws, national minimum wages and significant land reform. Yet, government officials in the US – highly influenced by Cold War mentality – defined these policies as communist and organized a coup against the Guatemalan government to overthrow the democratically elected President Árbenz and reinstall a military dictatorship.

“The coup happened at the bequest of the United Fruit Company,” says Oliva, “because a new agrarian program was giving land to landless peasants.” The United Fruit Company, a successful business which benefited greatly from low wages and exploitative conditions in Guatemala to supply their bananas, had aggressively lobbied the government to overthrow the Guatemalan government, no doubt in hopes of returning to systems which placed little value in fair pay. And it didn’t hurt that the top executives of the United Fruit Company, brothers John Foster Dulles and Alan Dulles, were also staff members of then-President Eisenhower. Decades of brutal civil war followed, which led to an influx of Guatemalan refugees into the United States, including Oliva and his family.

History and Empowerment

This pattern of industry power in the US to influence government policies, some of which can result in actual generations of civil war in a foreign country, is not lost on Oliva. Believing that he is living, breathing proof that his grandfather’s work is still being fought, he uses his own history in Guatemala as fuel to mobilize members of the food system to recognize power dynamics. Two years ago, Oliva and his co-director Joann Lo received the James Beard Foundation’s Leadership Award for his work empowering food workers.

Today, Oliva continues to dedicate himself to empowering laborers in the food system. Reminiscing about his grandfather, he explains that in Mayan cosmology nothing is linear, and in that way the work of fighting for social justice is inside him and he is meant to continue the work of his ancestors. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a choice,” he says.

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