International Food Workers’ Week: Support Our Everyday Food Heroes
The week of Nov. 23 – 29 will mark the Third Annual International Food Workers Week (IFFW) organized by the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), a coalition of organizations whose members take part in every aspect of the food system. Taking place the week of Thanksgiving, International Food Workers Week is meant to bring awareness to the workers in our food system—from those who pick our produce to those who stock the supermarket shelves. This year’s theme is Food Worker Heroes – celebrating everyday food workers who are organizing to create better working and living conditions in the food system. They are fighting to stop injustices like child labor, pesticide contamination, and the militarization of communities from Ferguson to the US-Mexico border. They are also organizing for higher wages and access to healthy, affordable food.
This week is a time to celebrate and highlight the food workers who are so instrumental to our food system and yet so often underserved. Farmers, food processing workers, food distribution workers, food retail workers, and food service workers disproportionately suffer from poor working conditions which include low wages, harassment, wage theft, and lack of benefits. In the midst of such exploitation—and in the face of potential retaliation from employers—thousands of workers across the country have organized and made their collective cry for justice heard.
Taking place the week of Thanksgiving, International Food Workers Week is meant to bring awareness to the workers in our food system—from those who pick our produce to those who stock the supermarket shelves.
Food worker heroes have been instrumental in recent gains to food labor justice in the United States. In September of 2014, the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was awarded the Global Citizen Award for defending the human rights of farmworkers across the United States. The CIW created their own social responsibility program to protect their human rights, the Fair Food Program, as “corporate social responsibility” models continuously failed workers. The Fair Food Program passes the premium paid by buyers directly on to the workers, and includes a human rights-based code of conduct. Since the program’s implementation on tomato farms in Florida, over $15 million has gone directly into the paychecks of farmworkers; sexual harassment and violence against women has been greatly reduced; and forced labor has been completely eliminated.[1. “Clinton Global Initiative Honors Coalition of Immokalee Workers with Global Citizen Award,” Gandhi’s Be Magazine, accessed October 15, 2014, http://www.bemagazine.org/?p=10149.] The associated Fair Food label just launched in October of 2014, allowing consumers to know and support the producers that are participating in this program. Food Chains, a film about the CIW and the Fair Food Program, will be released nationwide November 21st.
Community to Community (C2C), co-recipient of this year’s Food Sovereignty Prize, organized a series of strikes and boycotts this year along with Families United for Justice (Familias Unidas por la Justicia, FUJ) in protest of Sakuma Berry Farm’s unjust treatment and exploitation of employees, resulting in the largest class action settlement of its kind in Washington state. [2. “Farmworkers at Forefront of the Struggle for Food Sovereignty,” Food First, accessed November 4, 2014, http://foodfirst.org/farmworkers-at-forefront-of-the-struggle-for-food-sovereignty/.] Fast food workers strikes led to the creation of a $15/hour minimum wage in Seattle this June and opened up political space to raise the minimum wage across the country. Voting trends show that the people are listening; the recent midterm election saw gains for workers’ rights after years of strikes and protests: four states, plus the cities of San Francisco and Oakland in California, raised the minimum wage, and Massachusetts became the third state to guarantee paid sick days. [3. Samantha Winslow, “Voters Favor Higher Wages, Sick Pay,” Labor Notes, November 5, 2014, http://labornotes.org/2014/11/voters-favor-higher-wages-sick-pay.]
In the face of harassment, possible termination, and other forms of retaliation, these everyday food heroes have bravely stood up and brought injustice out of the shadows and into the public eye.
The Berkeley Labor Center’s recent report on the food retail industry shows that inconsistent scheduling and lack of access to hours are one of the driving factors behind the enduring poverty of food retail workers, especially those who work for large corporations like Wal-Mart. [4. Saru Jayaraman, Shelved: How Wages and Working Conditions for California’s Food Retail Workers HAve Declined as the Industry Has Thrived (University of California, Berkeley, June 2014), http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/pdf/2014/Food-Retail-Report.pdf.] The Organization Union for Respect at Wal-Mart (OUR Walmart), composed of Wal-Mart associates across the United States, is at the forefront of the fight for the rights of Wal-Mart employees. Pressure from OUR Walmart influenced the giant corporation to change their pregnancy policy and transition to a more transparent scheduling system, which will improve scheduling and access to hours. [5. “OUR Walmart,” OUR Walmart, accessed November 5, 2014, http://forrespect.org/.] [6. Although OUR Walmart has seen gains in changes to the pregnancy policy and scheduling system, it is not enough. The change in pregnancy policy, brought along by the Respect the Bump movement, only allows for accommodations to be made to pregnant employees if they suffer from a “temporary disability due to pregnancy”, failing to address the needs of pregnant employees who, while not suffering from a temporary disability, are still unable to stand on their feet for hours at a time or lift heavy loads. And while a more transparent scheduling system is a step in the right direction, workers still need to be paid a living wage.]
These everyday food workers are, indeed, food heroes. In the face of harassment, possible job termination, and other forms of retaliation, they have bravely stood up and brought injustice out of the shadows and into the public eye. They have organized their colleagues, communities, and allies, creating strong networks of support that stand for justice. Armed with courage, hope, and the organizing skills of various cultures and labor traditions, they fight for their rights as human beings. In honoring our food workers during International Food Workers Week, we pledge to stand with them year-round, with an understanding that an injustice to one is an injustice to all.
On Black Friday, Nov. 21st, join thousands of employees and allies across the country outside over 1,000 Wal-Mart stores as they protest for better working conditions, respect, and the right to lead a dignified life (http://blackfridayprotests.org/#).