5 Ways Labor is Fighting for Fairness in Our Food System

The global food system is heavily reliant on people to plant, pick and serve our food. Labor groups have targeted several food products that have been associated with workers subjected to inhumane conditions or otherwise treated unfairly. Here are five examples of how the people who work in our food system are fighting for fair treatment - and how you can help.

1. Poultry's Toll on Worker Health

Cheap chicken can come with a high human cost, according to a report by Oxfam. Processing line workers have to operate at faster speeds, which can lead to an increase in injuries that may go unreported. Oxfam is working to improve worker health and safety in the poultry industry beginning with allowing workers to take bathroom breaks.

What you can do: Look for sustainably produced poultry from local farmers.

2. Seafood and Slavery

Seafood has long had a dubious reputation when it comes to labor. People that work in the seafood industry may face dire conditions and even slavery because much of the work is done in the near-lawlessness of international waters. In 2015, the New York Times ran a series of articles documenting tales of slavery and murder on the high seas. An AP investigation in the same year exposed seafood slavery in Southeast Asia, which fortunately led to the rescue and freedom of two thousand fishermen (the AP won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for this investigation).

What you can do: Support newspapers and other investigative organizations that expose these abuses.  

3. Boycotting Berries

People picking our blackberries, blueberries and strawberries are not happy. Workers, many from Mexico, are complaining about long hours and little pay. Some seasonal workers that were not covered by the federal guestworker program have organized work stoppages and protests to demand equal treatment. In support, labor leaders have called for a boycott of Driscoll's, the world's largest berry distributor.

What you can do: Look for berries from local, sustainable farms, support workers rights and join the boycott.

4. Winning with Tomatoes

After years of effort, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was able to help raise wages for 30,000 workers and improve working conditions for tomato pickers in Florida. Retailers agreed to pay a penny a pound more to growers to be passed on to the pickers. The CIW created a partnership among farmers, farmworkers and retail food companies called the Fair Food Program that "ensures humane wages and working conditions for the workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms."

As the CIW's case demonstrates, working conditions and wages can improve without hurting the bottom line. This example can give workers in more vulnerable sectors of the food industry hope, especially if workers and consumers work together to fight for change.

What you can do: Look for food with the Fair Food label and support the CIW's work.

5. Pineapples in the Philippines

The Philippines is one of the largest producers and exporters of pineapples in the world. According to Fairfood International, 24,000 people are employed to pick and process the fruit, only to receive wages that do not meet their basic needs. Fairfood is engaging with pineapple producers to ensure that the workers' rights are respected. Local organizations, civic groups and workers are teaming up with Fairfood to better understand and exercise their rights.

What you can do: Support Fairfood's work and other organizations working for more sustainable practices.


Image "Migrant Worker and Tomatoes, Fort Blackmore, VA" by Bread for the World on Flickr used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.