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From farm to table – A look at labor practices in the food chain

A new report released by the Food Chain Workers Alliance takes a closer look at the wages and working conditions of the occupations and industries involved in bringing us our food. Core food occupations along the food chain include farmworkers, processing facilities workers, warehouse workers, grocery store workers, and restaurant workers. Together the “food system” employs one in five private-sector workers, yet taken as a whole, provides some of the least sustainable working conditions. Here are some data points from the study:

  • 86.5 percent of the workers surveyed reported earning low or poverty wages,
  • 79 percent lacked access to paid sick days,
  • 83 percent did not have health insurance,
  • 36 percent experienced wage theft in the previous week, and
  • 57.2 percent suffered injury or health problems on the job.

These poor working conditions affect the economic security of workers, but also increase public costs (food system workers use public assistance at higher rates), risk public health (53 percent of workers had worked when sick due to a lack of paid sick days), and keep local economies from thriving.

Mark Bittman wrote an interesting opinion piece about the report in the NY Times yesterday, noting that sustainable food does not always mean sustainable labor practices.

If you care about sustainability — the capacity to endure — it’s time to expand our definition to include workers. You can’t call food sustainable when it’s produced by people whose capacity to endure is challenged by poverty-level wages.

For more information about occupations in the restaurant industry in North Carolina and the history and impact of the sub-minimum wage, take a look at our report: Tipping the Scales toward Fair Wages.

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