April 7, 2015 Kim Krisberg 11Comment

Americans increasingly want to know that their steaks were humanely raised or their produce was organically grown, but what about the people who picked that produce or cared for those cows? Where’s the concern for the workers behind our food? Reporter Stephen Lurie explored that question in an article published last week in Vox. He writes:

Organic and environmentally sustainable certifications lead consumers to supposedly wholesome products, but they hold no guarantees about the wholesomeness of the companies that produce those goods. Sitting down to a farm-to-table meal at a chic restaurant might feel like a principled splurge, but it could be brought to you on the backs of poorly paid staff at the farms and tables.

In fact, perhaps more than with any other purchase, that’s probably the case: the food industry is the worst paid, and features some of the worst working conditions, of any employment sector. The industry is also huge. Every year it rakes in hundreds of billions of dollars, very little of which trickles down to ordinary workers.

Lurie writes that there isn’t one “standalone certification” that tells a consumer whether a company has fair labor practices. Even companies that make organic products — companies that consumers feel good about supporting — have numerous OSHA violations. One example Lurie noted: “Peri & Sons, an organic onion farmer, set a record in 2012, settling with the Department of Labor to pay more than $2.3 million in back wages to more than 1,300 workers. Peri & Sons had recruited foreign workers whom they vastly underpaid under the terms of employment.”

However, Lurie reports that the winds might be slowly changing. He writes about the B Lab, an organization that certifies companies based on governance, workers, community and environment, as well as the growing movement of fast food workers who are organizing for better wages and working conditions. Lurie writes:

Ultimately, the existence of the organic, certified humane, and non-GMO fads can be considered insulting as long as labor is ignored. Or it can be inspiring: in only a few decades, so many types of ethical and environmental eating have found a foothold. It’s a positive sign that people may come to care about fair treatment as much as good taste.

Unfortunately, like the destructive or abusive conditions that help launch or sustain other food trends, we may need to understand how bad things are before we make them better.

To read the full article, visit Vox.

In other news:

The New York Times: Reporter Claire Cain Miller writes about the struggles facing parents who work in Silicon Valley, noting that while such work-life issues are hardly unique to the tech sector, it’s “a striking example because it attracts some of the country’s smartest people, many of whom have far more bargaining power than most workers.” Miller reports that many of the big names in tech, such as Facebook, have generous family leave policies on the books, but such examples aren’t indicative of the industry on a whole. She quotes Glenn Kelman, chief executive at the online real estate brokerage Redfin: “People who give you millions of dollars for nothing but an idea at the very least expect your complete commitment to that idea. That is why nobody, not even the most committed parent, talks about a family-friendly workplace in, say, an investor pitch deck.”

The Los Angeles Times: Following last week’s vote by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to study the impact of raising the minimum wage, reporter Jean Merl talked to local business owners to get their perspectives. Somewhat surprisingly, most of the business owners interviewed in the piece understood the need for higher wages, with some even saying it would be a boost to the economy. Here’s just one quote: “If somebody is a good employee — hard-working, with a good personality, a problem-solver — they’ve got to be worth more” than the minimum wage, said Scott Webster, whose grandfather opened a family-run pharmacy in Altadena in 1926. “And people always do better when they are appreciated.”

Texas Tribune: In response to the 2013 explosion at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant that killed 15 workers, state Rep. Kyle Kacal has introduced legislation that would tighten regulations around the storage of ammonium nitrate and require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to collect hazardous chemical reports, writes reporter Eva Hershaw. According to Hershaw, Kacal’s original bill had proposed increased penalties for improperly handling hazardous chemicals, however the current bill does not include such penalties. Hershaw noted that similar legislation was brought up last year, but faced opposition from lawmakers hesitant to impose more regulations on the fertilizer industry.

Huffington Post: Microsoft recently announced it will require its large U.S.-based contractors to offer workers 15 days of paid leave per year, reports Dave Jamieson. The announcement will apply to suppliers with 50 or more employees and to employees who have worked for the supplier for at least nine months. Jamieson writes: “If Microsoft stands by its pledge, then the companies that fail to meet its standard will lose Microsoft’s business. The company said it plans to work with its suppliers over the next year to help them implement the new policies.”

The Toledo Blade: Last week, McDonald’s announced it was raising wages and offering new employee benefits, but workers are saying the changes don’t go far enough. Reporter Rachel Swarns writes that while the fast food company pledged to raise wages to at least $1 over local minimum wages and will offer paid personal leave to certain workers, the changes will only benefit workers at company-owned restaurants — that’s 90,000 workers who will benefit versus 750,000 workers at franchises who won’t benefit. Still, Swarns reports that the announcement may be a sign that the fast food worker movement is making an impact. She quoted McDonald’s worker Julia Andino of New York: “We’re making progress,” said Andino, 20, who like many other workers continued to press McDonald’s and other retailers to increase wages to $15 an hour. “If we continue fighting, we’re going to end up winning.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

11 thoughts on “Occupational Health News Roundup

  1. How can this be corrected? many workers in food industries are still under payed. it is said that if the food labor is improved, the food prizes may increase. some companies use the B Lab’s impact evaluation metrics to monitor their business and improve food labor. in what ways does the B Lab help improving this problem?

  2. Sifiso: The B lab is providing a certificaiton that producers can put on their food saying that the producer engages in fair labor practices. This will then justify a higher price to the consumer, to offset the higher labor cost.

    Just like how food labeled “organic” usually costs more than ‘conventional” food. I as a consumer can say “I am willing to pay more for my food item if I know that the people who produce this food are being treated fairly.”

    It’s like paying more for cage-free, free-range eggs.

    It is not related to the wage of the fast food workers. That is a different article.

  3. So as a point you are trying to make JustaTech, what label specifically will it be shown so that consumers may know that truly the workers who initiated the production of the commodity are treated fairly?

  4. I am interested to know what it is that would classify milk as “humane”. Does this certification ensure that the milk is non-GMO, or that the cow is non-GMO, etc.? There are many possible explanations as to why a product would not be “certified humane” but it is not made clear as to why it is so. 15385010

  5. The saddest thing is that the workers who are underpaid cannot afford to fight for their rights and the only “punishmnet” these producers get are high profits as cost of lproduction is low. Arn’t there minimum wage stipulations in the constituions of countries for this line of work?

  6. I don’t like that the farm and food workers are referred to in Lurie’s article as “Ordinary workers.” Surely they deserve more respect than this! Without them, the industry would not exist.

    Does the word “Humanely raised” refer to the workers being treated humanely by employers or the animals being treated humanely? Whatever the answer, I think these two situations are related: if a worker is treated badly at work, that worker would be more inclined to treat his/her animals more roughly and less humanely than a well-paid, happy worker. Perhaps the humaneness of the way the animals are treated and therefore whether a steak has been “Humanely raised” or not can be directly linked to how well the workers are treated by their employers and co-workers.

    A huge emphasis these days is being placed on whether things are being organically grown, the equivalent of which being whether meat has been humanely raised. People want to eat healthy, and are more aware of the health risks of eating GMO foods. Perhaps all meat could be classified as “Humanely raised” as long as workers are treated humanely.
    [#15013252]

    (See http://www.collective-evolution.com/2013/12/03/a-little-girls-project-shows-us-why-we-need-to-choose-organic-produce/)

  7. It’s a constant cycle of consumers wanting low prices leading to underpaid workers and their rights being exploited.

  8. Michael George Byansheko(u15290655): As is clearly stated in the article, the label would be from the B Lab.

    I do not know what it looks like.

    Damon Xavier Laurent: “Humane” refers to the treatment of an animal, not to the GMO state. As far as I know there are no GMO cattle. The only way that milk could be genetically modified is if the cow that is giving that milk is genetically modified.

  9. The statement “people always do better when they are appreciated” is very true. Depending on the increase, not only will increasing workers’ wages improve their quality of life, but it will encourage them to take pride in their job. This will improve the production of the company which will ultimately improve the economy. Of course, workers’ working conditions plays an important role in this and needs just as much attention as their wages do.

  10. It is not so easy to find the balance between profitability and worker rights in a global economy. Workers who earn dismal salaries and want to increase their wages would punt the B Lab stamp. The same workers would like to buy products at reasonable prices without paying a premium for the stamp. I feel sorry for the workers, but would rather have them active in the economy at lower wages then sitting without work because of efficient completion. I do like the concept though.(U15048722)

  11. I agree with JustaTech when saying that you would pay more for food if one knows that the workers are being treated fairly. The thing i don’t understand is why is it that workers who help produce an everyday need is treated badly in terms of wages and unpaid leave? I would think that these workers’ wages rise as food items’ price rise? Isn’t this just a fair concept.

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