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Why Safer Food Workers Mean Safer Food

5:10 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

New Department of Agriculture ‘reforms’ speed up the lines of poultry processing while shifting the onus of inspection onto workers. (Courtesy of the United Food and Commercial Workers)

Originally posted at In These Times

Americans these days are nervous about what they eat, and they should be, what with outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, meat pumped with veterinary drugs and genetically modified organisms creeping into our groceries. And in May, when the iconic brand of Smithfield Foods was bought by a Chinese multinational, there seemed to be still more cause for alarm. China seems even more rife with food hazards: rivers brimming with pig carcasses, poisonous baby formula, lakes of toxic waste.

But in both hemispheres, reports about health and safety scares tend to gloss over an underlying malaise afflicting the food system: the many hazards that are concentrated further up in the production chain, in the slaughterhouses and processing plants where corporations regularly subordinate workers’ health and safety, along with public health concerns, to their insatiable hunger for profits.

A 2011 petition filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights and Nebraska Appleseed described the unsavory conditions that U.S. meat-processing workers face every day:

Processors require their line employees to work at an extremely fast pace to keep up with these demands. The work is performed in very dangerous conditions: floors are slippery with grease, blood, and fat; temperatures are extremely cold or hot, and the work is arduous and repetitive—employees make upwards of 20,000 cuts a day.

In a 2012 report on labor conditions in the livestock industry by the Midwest Coalition, an Iowa plant worker testified, “Many workers are harmed, there is [not] enough time to do our tasks, the speed is so fast and we have to stretch ourselves to do the pieces. We are always working beyond the capacity of our bodies.”

Health hazards are intensified by a shopfloor culture that exploits and disempowers workers.Union membership has been plummeting since the 1980s. With low wages and massive stress, the sector relies heavily on immigrant workers, who may often be intimidated and silenced by the threat of being unfairly punished or fired for speaking out on health and safety problems.

Under such conditions, should consumers be shocked that food quality is endangered, too? These same factories and slaughterhouses have brought us arsenic-laced chicken and livestock laden with antibiotic-resistant pathogens. A recent USDA Inspector General report on pork plants found that regulators frequently failed to adequately enforce safety standards, while many facilities were cited for issues like mishandling hogs during slaughter, fecal contamination and pest-infested “kill floors.”

Remedying these problems–from toxic pork to musculoskeletal injuries–requires recognizing the connection between the regulatory failures across the industry as a workplace and a food supply.

Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, says the safety implications for the food produced in these plants should concern everyone. “It stands to reason that in a workplace where there’s a high level of pressure on workers to work as fast and to not report hazards, the same thing can happen in terms of quality control or food quality.”

The poultry industry illustrates the potential nexus between workplace conditions and the quality of the food it churns out. A recent catastrophic chemical fire at a Chinese poultry plant that killed 120 workers made international headlines. But silent dangers stalk U.S. facilities as well. On top of abuse and harassment from bosses, repetitive-stress injuries are prevalent in poultry plants, often leading to debilitating chronic pain that makes workers’ lives miserable.

And the job may soon get even more painful. The USDA has sought to “modernize” safety monitoring by essentially removing many inspectors from the lines and instead having plant workers perform visual quality checks, while using antimicrobial chemicals to help sanitize birds. At the same time, the proposed scheme would pump production by allowing faster processing speeds. So while workers cut up carcasses, whipping past them at a rate of up to 175 a minute, they are supposed to watch for unhealthy-looking chickens simultaneously. Studies on pilots of this program have revealed alarming rates of error in catching unsanitary birds. But consumers should also be alarmed about the greater danger experienced by workers as production reaches even more insane speeds, supposedly for greater efficiency. The USDA’s proposed reforms essentially do not contemplate their implications for worker safety.

This disconnect between food quality and workers’ health reflects a profound regulatory gap, not only because unhealthy workplaces may lead to unhealthy meat, but because safe workplaces protect public health.

Celeste Monforton, a lecturer at George Washington University School of Public Health, notes that workers could play an important role in safety, but are constrained by brutal working conditions:

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Foodies Get Wobbly

5:45 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Workers from Hot and Crusty win recognition for their union after 11 months of organizing. (Photo: Laundry Workers Center)

Originally published at In These Times

Once upon a time in the labor movement, a rebellious vanguard emerged at the margins of American industry, braiding together workers on society’s fringes—immigrants, African Americans, women, unskilled laborers—under a broad banner of class struggle.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, raised hell in the early 20th century with unapologetically militant protests and strikes.

Their vision of a locally rooted, globally oriented anti-capitalist movement was eclipsed by mainstream unions, which had more political muscle. But grassroots direct action is today undergoing a resurgence in the corners of the workforce that have remained isolated from union structures.

Such alternative campaigns have a special resonance in today’s food industries, which employ the roughly 20 million people (one-sixth of the total workforce) who harvest, process, distribute and sell the food we eat. This marginalized, low-wage group is hungry for organizing models that move as nimbly as the corporations that run the production chains. The IWW’s signature organizing model, syndicalism (which prioritizes direct action in the workplace), meshes with the growing trend in the labor movement toward less bureaucratic labor groups, such as worker centers and immigrant advocacy campaigns. Flexible mobilization that doesn’t require formal votes or union certification is well-suited to precarious laborers seeking to outmaneuver the multinationals.

Since 2007, the Wobbly-affiliated coalition Focus on the Food Chain (FOFC) has empowered workers in New York City’s food sectors to challenge abusive employers on the streets and in the courts. The group—an alliance between the local IWW and the advocacy group Brandworkers International—aims to “carry out member-led workplace justice campaigns to transform the industry” and focuses on the oft-neglected links between farm and fridge. According to Brandworkers Executive Director Daniel Gross, these processing and distribution industries are a “sweatshop corridor.” Read the rest of this entry →

Kraft Foods Bites Into Labor Struggles in Tunisia and Egypt

1:41 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted on In These Times

Kraft Foods has spread its syrupy slogan, “Make Today Delicious,” around the globe. But today in North Africa, bitter labor struggles at Kraft-affiliated plants in two hotbeds of the Arab Spring reveal that political revolt has failed to overturn the rotten dominion of multinationals.

Workers for Kraft-affiliated plants in both Tunisia and Egypt have charged that workers have faced crackdowns for trying to organize independently. According to the Geneva-basedInternational Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), which represents millions of workers and hundreds of unions worldwide, the nascent Egyptian and Tunisian labor movements face the old challenges of economic and political oppression, as well as the new challenges of post-revolutionary social tumult. Read the rest of this entry →

Research Raises More Toxic Health Concerns for Popcorn Workers

7:33 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(NIOSH)

Originally posted on In These Times

The aroma of hot buttered popcorn evokes all sorts of childhood nostalgia, but for many workers, those savory vapors pose a modern industrial health hazard.

Evidence has been building over the years of a respiratory illness primarily afflicting factory workers exposed to the microwave-popcorn butter flavorant, diacetyl (DA). Now, researchers have discovered another potential hazard related to DA: long-term risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Drug Design studied the effect of the “ubiquitous butter-flavoring agent” and detected an association with “long-term neurological toxicity,” particularly among industrial workers who are smothered in the stuff every day.

The federal government has in recent years urged the industry to limit potentially toxic workplace exposures to DA, but it has not defined an explicit regulatory exposure limit. Federal authorities have published advisories for employers to control DA exposure, but like many chemicals wafting across the country’s assembly lines and pervading our processed foods, DA (and similar chemical substitutes) are still amply used, with little restriction on behalf of public health.

Dr. Swati More, one of the study’s authors, says the findings should raise concerns that, in addition to posing respiratory risks, DA exposure “may lead to brain deterioration. The question that needs to be answered is, how much of diacetyl does one need to consume and for how long.”

Though the University of Minnesota study focuses on long-term effects related to beta-amyloid protein clumping in the brain, and was conducted at only the cellular level (not on humans), it adds to a growing body of research on the toxic impacts linked to DA exposure. Academic, media and government investigations have revealed both anecdotal and epidemiological evidence of “popcorn lung.”

The main occupational health issue surrounding popcorn lung, which has been acknowledged by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), is bronchiolitis obliterans. (There is also some evidence of respiratory risk for extreme popcorn eaters.) Read the rest of this entry →

Restaurant Workers Target Unsavory Labor Practices at Darden

3:45 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

ROC United / Dignity at Darden

Cross-posted from In These Times

America is what it eats, and our restaurants, where we wolf down everything from Belgian fries to sushi, serve up the best and the worst of our economy.  Behind every elegant table is a churning, stressed out kitchen, staffed with workers who may be barely able to feed their own families.

While restaurant owners scarf up profits, workers with the Restaurant Opportunities Center are biting back with a multi-city campaign against a company that represents the one-percent of the food service industry. They have launched protests as well as legal action against Darden, which runs Capital Grille, Olive Garden, Red Lobster and other prominent eateries.

According to the lawsuit, Capital Grille workers in Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago  were subjected to grueling work schedules and underpayment of wages, and sometimes were forced to work “off the clock” and denied overtime. Some tipped workers allegedly had their wages siphoned off to supplement the pay of non-tipped employees. There are also allegations of systematic racial discrimination—complaints that black workers were pushed out of the job and told they “didn’t meet Capital Grille standards.” In recent months, workers from other cities have also come forward with complaints about mistreatment.

The litigation is part of a grassroots campaign to expose unsavory labor practices throughout the restaurant sector. ROC’s organizing work in New York, Chicago, the Washington, DC area, Los Angeles and Miami has revealed patterns of exploitation that reflect business as usual in an industry that routinely fattens its profit margins by skirting regulations and squeezing labor costs. Read the rest of this entry →

Study: Restaurants Feed on Exploited Women’s Labor

7:08 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Next time you plunk down some change on the table before leaving a restaurant, think about what might be behind that service with a smile. A new study warns that when Americans eat out, they feed into an industry fueled by exploitation and rampant discrimination against women.

The report, published by the labor advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) in partnership with a coalition of labor and women’s rights groups, details the restaurant industry’s secret recipe for fattening profits: low wages, harsh working conditions, erratic hours and multiple racial and gender barriers to job advancement–all served with a side of broken immigration laws and a powerful industry lobby.

In a testimony in the report, Claudia Muñoz recalled how her job at a national pancake chain restaurant in Texas demanded round-the-clock hours without overtime pay. Scrounging for tips, she earned as little as $160 per week. Muñoz says:

I had to eat less than $6.50 for the employee meal. … I could only afford pancakes. If you were on the schedule for only 5 hours, you couldn’t get a meal. There were days when I wouldn’t eat all day.

Surrounding her was a cross-section of the country’s forgotten workforce:

There were a lot of older people—women in their 50’s. They had children, families, some were single mothers … and $2.13 plus tips was all they had. … It really opened my eyes. It was Latinos cooking, white women working graveyard shifts, men working during the day. I saw the racism, sexism, and low wages in the industry. Everything I remember from that place was horrible. Read the rest of this entry →