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.