The Food Chain Workers Alliance is a coalition of worker-based organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food, organizing to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain. The Alliance was founded in July 2009. The Alliance works together to build a more sustainable food system that respects workers’ rights, based on the principles of social, environmental and racial justice, in which everyone has access to healthy and affordable food.
Over 20 million people work in the food system in the U.S., and millions more around the world toil in the food sector. These workers are among the most exploited and poorest in the world. Here are some statistics about food workers in the U.S.:
- U.S. farm workers on average earn only $10,000-$12,499 per year.
- About 400,000 farmworkers are children.
- The average earnings of meatpacking workers are $11.13/hour, 29% less than the average wage for all manufacturing jobs in the U.S.
- Meatpacking is the one of the most dangerous jobs in America – more than 1 in 10 workers in meatpacking plants suffer illness and injuries, double the rate for all U.S. manufacturing.
- On average, restaurant workers annually earn $12,868, compared to $45,371 for the total private sector.
- In a New York City study 98% of restaurant workers who sneezed or coughed into the food did not have paid sick days, and 65% of all workers who engaged in any dangerous consumer health practice had no access to benefits.
- On average overall, non-union food service workers earn just $7.80 per hour, while union workers make an average of $10.32 per hour.
- A recent report found that 23% grocery workers were paid less than the minimum wage, and 65% were not paid overtime.
- In the greater Chicago area and in Southern California, the two major warehouse centers in the United States, a majority of workers are employed by temp agencies that pay them minimum wage and sometimes less.
And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7 of the 10 worst-paying jobs in the U.S. are food system jobs:
- Fast food cook – $8.91/hr, $18,540 annually
- Food preparation and service workers – $8.95/hr, $18,610 annually
- Dishwashers – $8. 98/hr, $18,680 annually
- Counter attendant – $9.27/hr, $19,280 annually
- Hosts and hostesses – $9.43/hr, $19,600 annually
- Cashiers – $9.52/hr, $19,810 annually
- Farm workers – $9.24/hr, $20,040 annually
Without living wages and benefits, food system workers cannot afford healthy food and often must work more than one job or 12+ hour days in order to pay for rent, food, and other necessities, and therefore they do not even have the time to cook fresh food. As journalist and author Michael Pollan writes, “instead of paying workers well enough to allow them to buy things like cars…companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s pay their workers so poorly that they can afford only the cheap, low-quality food these companies sell, creating a kind of nonvirtuous circle driving down both wages and the quality of food.” Often workers must take more than one job to pay rent and other necessities. Millions of workers must migrant to the U.S., leaving their children in their home country. This poverty often forces children to work to help support their families.
The institutionalized racism in the U.S. and around the world has created a food system built on the cheap or slave labor of people of color and immigrants. Thirty-nine percent of undocumented laborers work in food- or farming-related industries, and these workers make up a large part of the workforce: 29 percent of agricultural laborers, 27 percent of butchers and other meat, fish and poultry processing workers, and 17 percent of food preparation workers.
The legal framework in the U.S. and in most industrialized countries gives unprecedented power to an oligarchy of corporations which control our food system and perpetuates a system in which large and small employers alike exploit workers by paying poverty wages, ignoring health and safety regulations, and threatening undocumented workers with arrest and deportation. Large agribusiness conglomerates have integrated both horizontally across industries and vertically along the supply chain such that multinational corporations wield unprecedented market power. For example, the top four meatpacking companies control 80% of the market – more than doubling in the past two decades. At the end of June 2010, reports surfaced that JBS, the world’s biggest beef producer, may buy Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pork processor.
Food is a human right, and the human rights of those who produce our food, from field to table, should be respected as well. By coming together in the Food Chain Workers Alliance, our member organizations will have greater power to improve the wages and working conditions of food system workers and their families. In this way we can challenge institutionalized racism and balance out the immense corporate power over our food system in order to work towards ending poverty and therefore hunger, as well as to truly achieve sustainable agricultural practices, environmental justice, and respect for workers’ and community rights.
 Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) (2001 – 2002).  http://afop.org/children-in-the-fields/learn-the-facts/#AFOP_estimates  Bureau of Labor Statistics. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/naics4_311600.htm May 2008.  “Total recordable cases, Rate of injury and illness cases per 100 full-time workers by selected industry, All U.S., private industry, 2003-2007: Animal slaughtering and processing (code 311600).” Bureau of Labor Statistics Database.  “Executive Summary of Behind the Kitchen Door: A Summary of Restaurant Industry Studies in New York, Chicago, Metro Detroit, New Orleans, and Maine.” Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. February 9, 2010.  “Burned.” by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, the New York City Restaurant Health and Safety Taskforce, and the New York City Restaurant Industry Coalition. September 11, 2009.  “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and labor Laws in America’s Cities.” by the National Employment Law Project, Center for Urban Economic Development at U of I-Chicago, & the Institute for Labor Research and Education at UCLA (2009).  “ Life, Work, and Injustice in Southern California’s Retail Fortress.” by Nick Allen. New Labor Forum. 2010. and “ Bad Jobs in Goods Movement: Warehouse Work in Will County, IL.” by Warehouse Workers for Justice. August 2010.  “The Size & Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.”, p. 19, Jeffrey Passel, Pew Hispanic Research Center, March 7, 2006.  Richard J. Sexton, Industrialization and Consolidation in the U.S. Food Sector: Implications for Competition and Welfare 82,Am. J Agric. Econ 1087 (2000); Neil Wrigley, The Consolidation Wave in U.S. Food Retailing: A European Perspective, 17 Agribusiness 489-513 (2001); Murray Fulton and Konstantinos Giannakas, Agricultural biotechnology and industry structure, 4 AgBioForum 137-151 (2001).  “Consolidation in U.S. Meatpacking.” MacDonald, J. M. et. al. Agricultural Economic Report. USDA. Washington DC, USDA: 47 (2000).  Smithfield Rises After Report JBS May Hold Acquisition Talks.” by Simon Casey and Shruti Singh. www.businessweek.com. June 29, 2010.