WASHINGTON, Jan. 28, 2015 – Wages and working conditions of the people who harvest, process and serve America’s food have a relatively low priority in an elitist “food movement” that’s more caught up opposing biotechnology, antibiotics, agricultural chemicals, “factory farming” and new trade deals, according to some of the speakers at the First Annual Food Tank Summit in Washington.
One of the 10 panel discussions at the summit, held at George Washington University, was devoted to “Recognizing Workers in the Food System.” But panelists’ comments ranged well beyond working conditions in food and farming.
The two-day event featured 76 mostly “foodie” speakers but few real farmers.
“Eight of the 10 lowest-paid jobs in the United States are on farms and in the food industry,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-director of the 32-city Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and director of the University of California-Berkeley Food Labor Research Center.
“We need to bring the labor and food movements together,” AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Shuler said in the panel’s keynote address. Working conditions become a food safety issue, she said, when 80 percent of low wage workers do not have sick leave. Rather than losing income, she suggested, food preparation workers feel pressured to go to work sick, spreading illness.
“I have been a bit of a cynic, believing that consumers will care about food workers, not just about healthy foods, food safety and local foods,” said Mia Dell, chief lobbyist for the 1.3-million-member United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.
“We need to build a farm-to-consumer food movement,” said Jeremiah Lowery, research and policy coordinator for the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Washington, which campaigns for better pay for food service employees. He said leaders in the “food movement” who organized rallies at the White House to oppose biotech foods never reached out to workers groups.
“We need to heal our food system, break out of our silos,” said Jose Oliva, associate director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of labor groups that claim 250,000 members.
Increasing workers’ wages need not mean significant increases in food prices, he said, citing a study that estimated that a 2012 bill to boost the federal minimum wage would cost food consumers no more than a dime a day.
“We are well aware of the food-worker connection,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of the activist group Food & Water Watch, citing the campaign against the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) rolled out by USDA last July. “There are a lot of reasons to hate it,” she said.
“We’re suing to stop the rule.” The USDA proposal originally “gave no consideration to the impact on workers from higher line speed,” UFCW’s Dell said. Pressure from consumer and labor groups persuaded USDA to retain the previous line speed limit of 140 birds per minute, she said, rather than allowing up to 170 birds per minute in the new system.
Shuler, Dell and Lovera also characterized legislation to grant the president “fast track” trade promotion authority (TPA) as a worker issue. “Trade deals threaten workers’ rights and the right to local food,” Shuler said.
The pending deals with Pacific Rim nations and the EU “would make it more difficult to maintain food safety and worker safety protection” in the U.S., Shuler said.
“We can make progress in the United States,” Lovera said, but negotiating agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) “create opportunities for corporations to attack rules that protect workers and public health.”
Lovera also faulted “merger mania” in the food industry. “It’s almost ‘merger Monday’ – every week brings a new food merger.”
Concentration gives corporations “even more power in the marketplace and control over more of the decision-making,” she said. “Lobbyists are writing the rules. We’re doing it wrong at the national level.” Lovera said antitrust laws were not being enforced because regulators are not measuring the impacts correctly. In response to a question about large food companies, she replied, “Break ‘em up. They have too much power.”
Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, described a global “system of exploitation” in which American farm workers compete with Mexican farm workers. “There are not enough inspectors to enforce existing laws, even in the United States,” he said. He would like farm workers to have the right to associate to negotiate supply chain agreements.
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