New Report Paints Bleak Picture of Food Industry Labor Conditions 

Will working conditions and worker safety get even worse under Trump?

Former Taylor Farms worker Jose Vega.

International Brotherhood of Teamsters

Former Taylor Farms worker Jose Vega.

Oakland and San Francisco residents may take comfort in $15 minimum wages, first-name-basis familiarity with local farmers, and purchasing policies that enable public schools to use their spending power to buy ethically produced food. But a new report co-authored by the Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative indicates that there's still much work to be done, particularly in the realm of fair labor practices.

The report, entitled No Piece of the Pie: US Food Workers in 2016, was based on national data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Census Bureau, as well as current discussions in academic and policy literature. It found that the food industry — the largest employment sector in the nation — also contains the greatest portion of its poor. These findings come on the heels of another recent study that found that Bay Area restaurants have the largest race-based pay gap in the country.

No Piece of the Pie notes that the food industry has grown steadily in this country even through the Great Recession. But despite this robust growth, the median wage rose only $0.20 in the past four years. Thirteen percent of all food workers, from farm laborers to farmers' marketeers to coffee baristas, are on food stamps — more than twice the rate of any other industry. Meanwhile, the food industry's CEOs make about six times as much as its frontline workers — and in some cases much more. For instance, Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz made $336 million between 2009 and 2013.

"That is such a glaring injustice," said Joann Lo, Executive Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. "The workers who are responsible for ensuring that we have food available aren't earning enough to provide for themselves and their own families."

This growing poverty exists within the larger context of a racist and misogynistic industry with roots in slave and immigrant labor, and the perception that serving food is "women's work."

"It isn't as valued as a tech job," Lo said. "That devaluing is part of why we enforce, 'Well, these workers don't deserve higher wages.'"

The report also details a litany of unsafe working conditions, union suppression, wage theft, and sexual harassment. Lo explained that part of the reason why these violations go unnoticed is that "a lot of the jobs in the food system are invisible. [Customers] don't see them, and therefore they don't think about them."

Jose Vega, one of many workers interviewed for the report, is a former worker and crew leader at Taylor Farms in Tracy, CA, who was fired for his efforts to unionize. In an interview with the Express, he described managers who pressured workers for sexual favors and intimidated them with the threat of job loss, and work areas flooded with water and chemicals that left workers with headaches, burning eyes, and upset stomachs. One worker was fired for speaking out about the company's practice of mixing conventional produce into its organic salad mixes when the company ran out of organic produce. Vega said that a number of Taylor employees have been fired or threatened with deportation for efforts to unionize or for speaking out against Taylor's violations

Once, Vega said, "there was a chemical spill — there were a lot of spills, but this one was a big one — and one of the workers had to go to the hospital. The company didn't want to call the ambulance. One of my co-workers called the emergency number. I don't know if it was the next day or the day after — the manager said, 'Don't talk about what happened or you might lose your job.'"

"Even though in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles we have good progressive policies, we have to remember we're part of a larger regional and state economy, and it's important for us to support workers in other areas," said Lo. After all, Taylor Farms is located just an hour away from the Bay Area.

What's most concerning is that conditions for food workers, who are already heavily affected by the American legacy of racism and misogyny, will further decline.

"Especially now with Trump coming in as president, we are very worried not just about wages and working conditions, but the safety of Black, Muslim, and LGBT workers," said Lo. "... It's probably going to be worse. There are reports from people in these communities that there's a sense that our incoming president, with his language, his [plan to] register Muslims, the wall — it's opened up the doors for people to verbally and physically assault our brothers and sisters in those communities. And we need to stand up and support them."

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