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Meet Up, Eat Up, Act Up: Consumers Join the Movement for Food Workers’ Rights

12:04 pm in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell

Part 19 of the Harvesting Justice series

Behind the Kitchen Door

Behind The Kitchen Door follows the lives of several restaurant workers.

“This is a muddler,” said Danielle, grinding mint into the bottom of a metal cup. With the straightforward demeanor of a good bartender, Danielle was explaining how to make a mojito. But this was not just a fancy drink demo. After the cocktail, she talked with the audience about her working life at an upscale steakhouse chain restaurant, including the steady sexual harassment and the uneasy feeling of being viewed by management as a number more than a person.

The two dozen folks listening to Danielle were part of a trial run “eat-up,” an event that some food movement organizers hope will soon crop up in homes, restaurants, and bars around the country. The events are part of a new push by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), the Food Chain Workers Alliance, and others. (See our previous article for more about these organizations.) The goal is to bring awareness and action for workers’ rights, wages, and conditions into the heart of the food movement.

“We are trying to have workers become as trendy as local and organic has become in the industry,” Saru Jayaraman, co-director and co-founder of ROC, told us. “It’s going to take the three stakeholders – workers, good employers, and consumers – working together to actually change things. Any one of those things, if it’s missing, it’s not going to work. Which is why the consumer piece is so critical, and it’s been missing. We’ve actually organized the workers and we’ve organized the employers. We’ve never organized the consumers. There’s a diners’ club that’s basically a credit card, but there’s no organized voice of restaurant consumers demanding change.”

ROC’s efforts to change conditions in the restaurant industry include campaigns to get basic benefits such as paid sick days, and to increase the minimum wage for tipped workers. The group and their allies are gathering signatures and raising support for the Miller-Harkin Fair Minimum Wage Act. If passed, the law would increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 and the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to 70% of the regular minimum wage.

ROC also aims to fundamentally shift the power structures that allow the inequities to exist in the first place. “In the long run, it’s really about having a powerful voice of restaurant workers that can counterbalance the power of the National Restaurant Association,” said Jayaraman. “Because these two issues, low wages and lack of paid sick days, are symptoms of the bigger problem of an imbalance of power between this huge powerful industry lobby and restaurant workers. The long-term vision is an industry where workers have an equal voice to employers, have dignity and respect on the job, and have the ability to move up to livable wage jobs regardless of the color of their skin or their gender.”

In order to shift this power, ROC says, consumers must join forces with workers.Throughout the country, ROC is helping restaurant diners understand the reality behind their meals. “Say you’re a waitress at an IHOP in Texas, and you’re working a graveyard shift,” Jayaraman said. “Maybe sometimes you get tips, maybe sometimes you don’t. Which means you may be earning $2.13 per hour, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers.

“That means maybe sometimes you can pay the rent, maybe sometimes you can’t. And 70% of the people earning this wage are women. They’re not these wealthy steakhouse servers you might think about in a large urban city. They’re women with children working at Denny’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden. And a lot of times they struggle to put food on the table. The people who put food on our tables cannot afford to feed themselves.

“It’s super important for us to expand the definition of sustainability and sustainable food,” she said. “Sustainability has to include taking care of everybody who is a part of the food system, who picks, plants, processes, prepares it, and the people who consume it. We all need to be connected and understand our interconnectivity.”

Jayaraman has just published a book Behind the Kitchen Door, which follows the lives of more than a dozen restaurant workers. The book exposes conditions in the industry, such as the facts that 90% of restaurant workers don’t have paid sick leave, restaurant jobs make up seven of the 10 lowest paying occupations in the US, and restaurant workers are twice as likely as the rest of the workforce to be on food stamps.

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Jobs and Justice: Raising the Floor On Worker Rights and Wages In Haiti

11:04 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

by Beverly Bell, Alexis Erkert, and Deepa Panchang

May 23, 2013

Over the past few weeks in this article series, we’ve heard firsthand from Haitian garment workers about low wages, sexual abuse, labor rights violations, and work-related injuries they suffered in sweatshops.

Meanwhile, the world has watched the death toll in last month’s factory collapse in Bangladesh creep to above 1,100. Global activists have joined the calls of protesting workers, ramping up pressure on clothing retailers against the regular mistreatment and deaths of workers. Slowly, the public is realizing that exploitation within the garment assembly industry is not the exception, it’s the rule. Today, we take a deep dive into the economics of this sector in Haiti to look at how it has come to be, and at what alternative pathways might look like.

Palacio presidencial de Haití

Haiti Presidential Palace

In discussions among foreigners about working conditions and wages in the assembly industry, we often hear, “But Haitians need jobs. Wouldn’t things be worse without them?”

The question creates a false choice between no job and a grinding, exploitative job. Looking at the factors that led to low factory wages in the first place helps expose the myth. Western governments and their international financial institution (IFI) partners have played an active role in creating the dearth of options that exists for Haitian workers. For example, trade policies from the 1980s onward caused the decimation of the Haitian agricultural sector. Out-of-work farmers fled on masse to cities, and many had no better option but a factory job. Foreign policies imposed on the Haitian government have also contributed to a near-complete lack of public services and a weak, dependent domestic economy, which ramp up desperation; desperation, in turn, forced workers to accept the low wages.

The offshore assembly model creates a race to the bottom. In it, businesses circle the globe seeking the lowest cost of production – which involves the lowest health and safety standards and suppressed union organizing. As factories move to the next country, they create dirt-poor workers.

Despite this, governments, the UN, and the IFIs tout the garment assembly industry as a path to development in global South countries. The UN places the expansion of free trade zones (groupings of export-producing factories that enjoy tax exemptions and fewer safety, health, and environment regulations) toward the center of its development road map for Haiti. A 2009 report it commissioned argued that Haiti’s duty-free, quota-free preferential access to the American market, combined with low labor costs and a lack of protectionist policies, makes the country “the world’s safest production location for garments.” Weeks after the earthquake, that paper’s author, Oxford University economics professor Paul Collier, likened the catastrophic moment to 19th Century development of the US West, with its “investment booms, financed by enthusiastic outsiders. The earthquake could usher in such a boom in Haiti.”

Apparently sharing this view, four months after the earthquake the US Congress extended US trade preferences for assembled garments to Haiti in a law that was portrayed as a relief measure. Also since the earthquake, the US and other global players came up with $224 million to subsidize the development of a new free trade zone in northern Haiti, Caracol. Developers, who displaced 366 farmers from arable farmland for the project, promised more than 20,000 jobs. In actuality, fewer than 1,500 people are employed in the park; and after paying for transportation and meals, workers reportedly end each day with an average of US $1.36. More free-trade zones are in the offing.

For all the funding and attention the sector has received, the 24 factories currently making garments for export to the US employ very few people: 25,924, or approximately 0.5% of the working-age population. No matter the numbers, the industry’s contribution to the national economy is false development, said economist Camille Chalmers with the Platform to Advocate Alternative Development in Haiti. “Almost all of the primary materials used in manufacturing come from outside. When they say that Haiti exports hundreds of millions of dollars in products, a lot of that goes to [foreign companies to] pay for the inputs like cloth and equipment. Once assembled, the goods aren’t consumed in Haiti but are shipped abroad. The government doesn’t even benefit from taxes or tariffs. Haiti’s only role is as a stopover in the production process, where cheap labor keeps profit margins high.”

Haiti does need work opportunities, as any cash-desperate person there will tell you. But not at any price or under any conditions. Former factory worker Ghislene Deloné said, “It can’t be based on the exploitation of people. We need to be treated like human beings.” And Camille Chalmers said, “When we speak of employment, we have to talk about the quality of employment. [This sector] doesn’t create work that can develop our human resources or reduce poverty. These comparative advantages just reproduce misery.”
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From Field to Table: Rights for Workers in the Food Supply Chain

8:45 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell
Part 15 of the Harvesting Justice series

The Food Chain Workers Alliance has a goal of nothing less than full rights and fair wages for the 20 million workers who grow, harvest, process, pack, ship, cook, serve, and sell food in the US. Founded in 2009, the Alliance brings together 11 organizations representing workers throughout the food supply chain. It is organizing across sectors, building solidarity between workers in different industries. It is pushing for policy changes and educating and activating consumers so that we can all better align our food purchases with our principles. The Alliance also draws attention to the ways in which institutional racism in the US and around the world has produced a food system reliant on the exploitation of immigrants and people of color.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) is one of the founding members of the Alliance. Started in New York City, the organization’s original aim was to help find new jobs for workers who had been employed at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center that collapsed on September 11, 2001. This mission quickly expanded to changing working conditions throughout the entire restaurant industry. In 2008, a national office, ROC United, was launched, which has since helped replicate the model in eight other places: Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Michigan, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Houston.

“The restaurant industry is the largest private sector employer in the US,” said Jose Oliva, ROC’s national policy coordinator. “It is in the position of creating the conditions, setting the tone, setting the standard, for the entire sector, not just the service sector which has now become the core of our new economy, but for the entire private sector.” If food workers could exercise their power, added Jose, they could improve not only their own working conditions but also other aspects of the food system, from environmental impacts and animal rights to food quality for consumers.

ROC has won numerous campaigns against unjust restaurants, forcing them to change their practices. Their current campaign focuses on the world’s largest full-service restaurant group, Darden, which owns Capital Grille, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, and others. In 2012, ROC filed a lawsuit against the company for racial discrimination and wage theft. The organization is also leading a charge to raise the federal minimum wage for tipped workers, which has been frozen at $2.13 for more than 20 years. Over the years, ROC has led and won 13 campaigns against exploitation in high-profile restaurant companies, securing improvements in grievance procedures, raises, sexual harassment policies, sick days, job security, and anti-discrimination policies.

ROC is also making the public aware of what happens behind the scenes at restaurants. They have published in-depth reports and a new book, Behind the Kitchen Door, about working conditions, racism, and sexism in the industry.

Other compelling initiatives for food workers’ rights include:

* Dining workers are demanding better wages and working conditions on more than 100 college campuses in the US and Canada as well as at corporate cafeterias, airports, stadiums, event centers and other institutions. Part of the Real Food Real Jobs campaign of the union UNITE HERE, these food service workers are building union power across sectors and geographies. And, they are building bridges of solidarity with university students and faculty to add strength to their campaigns and win better contracts.

* The organization Just Harvest focuses on bridging the gap between the sustainable food movement and the farmworker rights movement. Just Harvest is reaching out to all those concerned about local and healthy food – including food co-ops, CSAs, farmers’ markets, organic producers and consumers – to bring forth the piece most often left out of the sustainability equation: labor wages and conditions for farmworkers. Just Harvest works to educate the public and mobilize support from different sectors such as students and consumers for food- and farm-worker justice campaigns. They are currently supporting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in their campaign targeting Wendy’s.

* A new certification, called Magen Tzedek or Seal of Justice, is now available to kosher producers that meet criteria regarding workers’ rights, environmental impact, and animal welfare. Kosher foods are those sanctioned by Jewish law, based on a set of standards for how they are processed and prepared. In 2006, after a report that the nation’s largest kosher meatpacker, Agriprocessors Inc., was violating workers’ rights, Jewish leaders began creating the new certification. “As concerned as we are about how an animal gets killed, we need to be equally concerned about how a worker lives,” says Rabbi Morris Allen, a leader in the certification effort. The kosher food industry has sales of $11.5 billion annually, so a shift in practices could have widespread ramifications on the entire food supply chain in the US.

* People are challenging the organic industry to step up to a higher standard in respecting workers’ rights. Organic certification in the US is regulated by the USDA and currently does not address labor rights. Organizations like the Agricultural Justice Project are creating domestic fair-trade labels, meaning the company or farm must meet standards regarding fair wages, freedom of association, workplace health and safety, and farmworker housing. Other groups like the Domestic Fair Trade Association and the Organic Consumer Association’s Fair World Project are playing a monitoring role, making sure certification programs uphold the standards that they profess.

* Immigrant farmworkers are, in some instances, starting up their own farming operations. Many have the necessary agricultural experience but lack the funds to buy or rent land, and are unfamiliar with US markets. A series of programs across the US are offering small pieces of land, “incubator farms,” on which immigrants can start their businesses. The programs provide access to training, loans, and equipment. The Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) in California and the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project in Massachusetts, as two examples, hold courses on the ins and outs of running a farm. Graduates of those classes can lease land far below market rate and get technical assistance.

Here are some ways you can support food, farm, and restaurant workers organizing for better working conditions:

• Stay in touch with the Food Chain Workers Alliance “Take Action” page at http://foodchainworkers.org/?page_id=289;

• Participate in the campaigns of the Restaurant Opportunities Council (ROC) for a higher minimum wage for tipped workers and for better working conditions. See their action alerts here: http://rocunited.org/action-center;

• Research how certain businesses, restaurants, and corporations treat their workers and choose your patronage accordingly. If you live in New York City, ROC has done your work for you; see their diners’ guide, If You Care, Eat Here, to learn about conditions in restaurants in the city;

* Join boycotts and hold solidarity protests for farmworkers rights. Check out the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the United Farm Workers, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee to learn about their current campaigns;

• Join efforts to bridge healthy and local-food movements with the farmworker rights movements. Just Harvest USA tells you how (www.justharvestusa.org/getinvolved.html); and

• Get to know the workers in your life. Offer respect and generous tips at restaurants. Find out how the institutions you are a part of treat their workers, and if workers are organizing, ask how you can support their efforts.

Download the Harvesting Justice pdf here, and find action items, resources, and a popular education curriculum on the Harvesting Justice website. Harvesting Justice was created for the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, check out their work here.

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We Have a Dream: Farmworkers Organize for Justice

10:47 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell

Part 13 of the Harvesting Justice series

Farmworkers on a decorated stage protest for better wages and working conditions.

A "Fair Food" Rally in Lakeline, Florida.

For decades, farmworkers – the more than one million men and women who work in fields and orchards around the country – have been leading a struggle for justice in our food system. They have been building awareness and mobilizing the public, successfully securing some rights, higher wages, and better working conditions. Today, a recent string of victories by the farmworker group Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), together with the steadfast work of other groups, have taken the movement to a whole new level.

The United Farm Workers (UFW), founded in 1966 by Dolores Huerta, César Chávez, and others, launched the modern-day farmworker movement. They brought their struggles to national attention by leading boycotts against grape and lettuce growers. Consumers around the country banished grapes and lettuce from their grocery lists, forcing growers to raise wages and to improve labor conditions. Since then, farmworkers have used work stoppages, hunger strikes, marches, union negotiations, and boycotts to win substantial improvements. No longer is it commonplace for crew leaders – those who round up workers and manage the crew – to beat workers, for example, or for farms to aerially spray pesticides in fields while people are working in them.

Exploitation in the Field

Despite these significant advances, farmworkers are still afforded inadequate rights, both on the books and in practice. They perform strenuous physical labor without the protections of sick leave, overtime pay, or health insurance. They are exempt from the National Labor Relations Act that protects workers’ rights to form unions and bargain collectively. If farmworkers try to organize or if they anger their bosses, they can be fired with absolutely no legal recourse. More than half are estimated to be undocumented, and live under the constant threat of deportation if they try to stand up for better conditions.[i] They may also be unable to demand their rights because they don’t speak English, or are unaware of what rights they do have.[ii] Racism and xenophobia play out in many ways, compounding the exploitation.

The minimum wage didn’t even apply to farmworkers until 1966, long after most professions were covered. And today, despite the law, many don’t in actuality make minimum wage. Farmworkers are twice as likely as other workers to live below the poverty line, and most earn an average of $10,000 to $12,000 per year.

These low wages are the result of cost-saving endeavors of corporate players along the food supply chain. The monumental profits of the fast-food industry, for example, come in part from companies’ ability to buy their ingredients cheaply. In an industry with estimated sales of $167.7 billion, company buyers use their power to pay the lowest prices possible to growers and food processors. Growers and processors, in turn, pay the lowest wages they can for field and factory work. Those suppressed wages go hand in hand with suppressing rights, so that workers don’t have the power to organize for better pay.

Farmworkers are also subject to inhumane working and living conditions. In the worst instances, they have been victims of slavery. Workers have been kept under armed guard, locked up at night, forced to work, denied the right to speak to people off the farm, and beaten if they attempt to escape. Since 1997 in Florida alone, the federal government has won seven criminal prosecutions for farmworker slavery, involving more than 1,000 workers. Since 2010, Florida has initiated two more prosecutions.

Most farmworkers come from villages in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. They are living the boomerang of globalization, often forced to emigrate in search of work because agriculture in their home countries has been weakened by US and global trade policies. One farm advocacy group noted, “US agriculture policy has thus created a de facto immigration policy.”[iii]

Rights and Power

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