Two new reports describe the working conditions for some of the 21 million workers in the U.S. food industry. Food workers constitute 14 percent of the U.S. workforce. They are employed across the system from those who work on farms and in canning plants, to meat packers, grocery store clerks and restaurant dishwashers.
No Piece of the Pie: U.S. Food Workers in 2016 was released this week by the Food Chain Workers Alliance. The report examines employment trends, wages, advancement opportunities, discrimination, and work-related injuries. The authors use government and industry data, but enhance the report with findings based on worker interviews. The report paints a grim picture of employment at all points along the food chain:
“Enrique and his family work at a dairy farm and wake up in the middle of the night and work for five to six hours, take a short break, and then go back to work for another five hours. He told us that exhaustion and long-term sleep deprivation are ‘the ugliest experiences [he has] endured in the milk industry.’”
“Catalina, a farmworker, recalled conditions at a tomato farm. ‘The way they treated you, it was as if you were an animal. They didn’t treat you like a human being... We lived in trailers, like 20 or 30 people in a trailer. They punished us if we missed any work, treated us like we were slaves.’”
“Sara, who worked at a catfish processing plant in Mississippi for many years, mentioned that when there were not any more fish to clean for a period of time, the company would require them to clock out and wait around for up to two hours, without pay, for another shipment to come in.”
"I’ve had a lot of sexual harassment issues with work... This older guy, he came to the restaurant
all the time. He always would say things... I poured him his coffee. He was like, ‘Hey, little Black
girl, you got enough milk in those jugs for my coffee?’ I was like, ‘What!?’ And I looked straight
to my boss, so [my boss] is like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, you know he’s a regular.’"
No Piece of the Pie notes that the annual median wage for food chain workers is $16,000 and the hourly median wage is $10. In addition, 13 percent of food workers (nearly 2.8 million workers) relied in 2016 on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (food stamps) to feed their families.
No Piece of the Pie makes nine recommendations to consumers and policy makers to improve the situation for workers in the food industry. The Food Chain Alliance is a coalition of worker-based organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food. The coalition is engaged in efforts to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain.
Last month, the global anti-poverty group Oxfam released another report as part of its campaign: The Human Cost of Cheap Chicken. Its latest is a review of gender issues in the U.S. poultry industry. As described by women who work in the U.S. poultry industry, Women on the Line focuses on issues that adversely affect their health.
Most poultry processing workers are at significant risk of musculoskeletal injuries because of repetitive and fast-paced design of cutting, deboning, and trimming chicken parts. Women often represent a larger share of the poultry processing jobs in a plant, yet the production lines are not designed to accommodate a woman's body. The report says:
"Most production lines are one-size-fits-all, and that size is usually the average male. The height of lines, work surfaces, and tools are oriented to accommodate larger people. Many women struggle to reach further and higher, and end up in awkward positions."
The tools used to break-down chicken into wings, thighs, drumsticks, breasts and tenders, are not necessarily designed with a woman's grip and hand strength in mind. "On average, women need to work harder to accomplish the same strength-based tasks as men," the report notes.
The topic of bathroom breaks was examined in Oxfam's May 2016 report "No Relief: Denial of Bathroom Breaks in the U.S. Poultry Industry." It is a dominant subject as well in Women on the Live.
"Throughout almost every interview, survey, or workshop that has profiled poultry workers, limited and restricted bathroom breaks are a clear issue. Supervisors often deny breaks; they are under pressure to meet daily quotas, and the poultry plants regularly do not hire enough “floaters” who could be called on to stand in for workers for a few minutes so they can use the bathroom."
Whether a man or a woman, not all bladders are created equal. Moreover, when women are menstruating or are pregnant, being able to use a bathroom on their schedule (not the boss') is particularly important.
The new Oxfam report and the one released this week by the Food Chain Alliance are particularly timely. One week from today will be Thanksgiving, the U.S.'s biggest holiday involving food. These reports remind me of the millions of skilled hands that belong to the low-wage laborers who grow, deliver, and prepare my food. It's a nice gesture for us to give them thanks. But what they deserve are consumers demanding that food companies give them a raise and respect.
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I wish there were chicken processing plants that treated their employees well (or, you now, not badly) so I could choose to buy from that place. I can choose cage-free, vegetarian eggs, I can choose antibiotic-free meat, but I've never seen "humane worker treatment" as a sticker at the grocery store.
I would pay a lot more for that. As it is I just buy less, which I know doesn't help the workers any.