Rats In The Cellar: The American Food Industry's Substandard Labor Conditions

The American food industry is infested by poor working conditions, below average wages, and rampant discriminatory, abusive labor practices.
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Like a cellar full of rats, the American food industry is infested by poor working conditions, below average wages, and rampant discriminatory, abusive labor practices.

A new report from the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), and the Solidarity Research Cooperative, entitled No Piece Of The Pie, finds that the American food system links together 21. 5 million workers--over one out of every seven workers in the U.S.-- in a chain of exploitation. With such a large percentage of workers employed in the food industry, their wages and conditions have a major impact on the U.S. economy in general.

The American. food chain comprises 14% of the nation's workforce, and is the 3rd. largest contributor to U.S. gross output, behind manufacturing and the financial sector--generating $3.5 trillion. The average U.S. household spends approximately 10% of its yearly pre-tax income--over $7,000--on food expenses.

The FCWA report says our food system is a stew of stagnant wages, substandard working conditions, inadequate fringe benefits, health and safety issues, and mistreatment at work. The 5 links in the food chain are: production, processing, distribution, retail, and services.

The retail sector, for example, employs around 3 million workers at superstores, grocery stores, and convenience stores. The median hourly wage for frontline retail workers--outside of managers and executives--is $10 per hour, with a median annual wage of $15,000--far below the $17.53 median hourly wage for all other industries.

Not surprisingly, the food system has experienced a decline in unionization, from 16.5% in 1985 to 6.6% today. Unionized workers now earn 26% more than non-union workers and are far more likely to have health and pension benefits.

According to the FCWA, the industrial food system in America is dominated by a handful of large corporations. A small number of companies exert enormous control over how food is produced, transported, and sold, putting downward pressure on wages and unionization. "A striking example of this," says the FCWA, " is Wal-Mart, the largest grocery store chain and corporation in the world. When Wal-Mart demands that suppliers keep costs low, companies along the food chain must respond in order to remain in business. This often results in a domino effect of depressed wages, lower unionization rates, and worse working conditions throughout the food system."

As No Piece Of The Pie notes, "These low wages come at a price for society, however." U.S. taxpayers subsidize Wal-Mart's workers through programs such as Medicaid, public housing subsidies, and SNAP (food stamp) benefits, costing taxpayers up to $1.7 million per store per year, according to a Democratic staff report from the U. S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Food workers use food stamps at 2.2 times the rate of all other industries.

Frontline workers in the food chain are racially and ethnically diverse, but most CEOs are white males. In 2014, almost 40% of food workers were people of color. More than 72% of the chief executive officers in food industries were white men. For every dollar earned by white men working in the food chain, Latino men earn 76 cents, Black men 60 cents, Asian men 81 cents. White women earn less than half of their white male counterparts, at 47 cents to every dollar. Black women earn 42 cents, Latina women 45 cents, Asian women 58 cents for every dollar earned by white men.

The FCWA offers this recipe for "significant changes" in the food industry's labor practices:

• Minimum wages must be increased, and the tipped minimum wage for workers in the food service sector and the piece rate pay system in all sectors should be abolished. Wage increases should be indexed for inflation.
• Affordable healthcare must be provided for all workers, and paid sick leave.
• Anti-wage theft legislation and punishment for employers who routinely steal wages from employees..
• The right to organize into unions should be guaranteed for food system workers, including protection from retaliation.

Consumers can also support food workers by purchasing products from companies that are fair trade, union-made, or have high labor standards. Look for certification labels that tell you if a food product was made with good labor standards. "Many local food groups and farmers' markets do not talk about food workers," the FCWA says, "simply because they are unaware of the issues that workers face."

The new FCWA report builds on the group's 2012 report The Hands that Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain, a comprehensive report about workers throughout the food system, and their June, 2015 report Wal-Mart at the Crossroads: The Environmental and Labor Impact of Its Food Supply Chain. That report gave Wal-Mart its list of ingredients for labor reforms:
• Respect the rights of Wal-Mart workers to organize and speak out. End illegal retaliation.

• Instate a $15 per hour minimum wage at its U.S. facilities and comparable living wages at its other stores around the world.
• Revise scheduling practices to offer full-time status to any associate who wants a full-time position who has worked at Wal-Mart for over one year.
• Establish a 40-hour minimum for associates with full-time status.

Every link in our American food chain is corroded by the exploitation of people, from farm production to food services in your hometown. It's enough to make you lose your appetite. But rather than swearing off food, consumers can demand that Congress and corporations clean up our food chain, and serve up food workers a decent piece of the pie.

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters. He has been helping communities fight sprawl since 1993. His most recent book is Occupy Wal-Mart.

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