Our VoiceHealth & Environment

Cross-Post: The Real Food Chain


Imagine 2050 Staff • May 05, 2012

Originally published by Joann Lo at Resistinc.org.

Deathrice Jimerson works in warehouses outside of Chicago. Chicago is a major logistics hub, the only place in North America where six Class I railroads (the largest type of railroad) meet, connecting all corners of the continent. In the fall of 2010, Dee was hired by the temporary work agency Reliable Staffing and sent to work at a Walmart warehouse run by a subcontractor called Schneider Logistics.

“This company told me when I got hired I was getting paid $10 an hour and then they changed that to ‘production’ without giving me a note.” “Production” means that Dee and his co-workers were paid $10 for each large pallet of goods that they unloaded from shipping trucks. Sometimes, that $10 had to be shared by all of the workers who were unloading the trucks. These rates rarely added up to minimum wage or overtime pay as required by labor laws. So Dee and other workers filed a class action lawsuit against the temp agency in February 2011. The next day, Dee was told not to return to work.

This is not unique. Temporary work, low wages and wage theft are now the norm in the warehouse industry.

In another warehouse, the company also paid “by production rate,” but this time it meant for every “5,000 boxes you move off this truck, this truck is only worth $62. There is no way you can finish a 5,000-box truck in 8 hours,” Dee said during a December 2011 retreat with other worker leaders in the food system. “So that means by my production rate, I’m working 8 hours per day for $62 per truck. And then I come back tomorrow and I still gotta work this truck. And it is still $62 a truck. So I am working today for free, basically. Seven hours, for free, for this day.”

Plant, grow, harvest, process, ship, sell, cook, and serve

The situation of Dee and warehouse workers in the Chicago area is very much like that of workers throughout the food chain. Close to 20 million people in the US work in the food system. They join millions more around the world who plant, grow, harvest, process, ship, sell, cook, and serve food. Frontline food workers often lack job security, are paid low or sub-minimum wages and face unsafe and unhealthy working conditions.

It’s no secret that the food system is broken. Less known is that it’s also corrupt. Walmart controls one-third of the US grocery market and for most major food products, just three or four corporations control the entire market. Billions of taxpayers’ dollars annually go towards commodity crops like corn, soy and wheat, while independent fruit and vegetable farmers fight for basically pennies.

The corporate consolidation in the food system and its undue influence over policy makers have led to fewer family farmers and small food businesses, cheaper unhealthy food, and contamination of our water and land. In response, the food justice movement has grown substantially in the past decade and has made wonderful advances in the growth of community gardens, urban agriculture and food access.

This corruption in the food system has also led to the exploitation of food workers. The issues facing food-system workers have not received as much attention from food justice activists. Sustainable food should include sustainable jobs for the people who work in the food system. In a survey of 319 warehouse workers, Warehouse Workers for Justice found that 63% were temporary hires. And the median hourly wage for a temp worker was $9.00/hour, $3.48/hour less than directly hired workers.

From an analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we found that the average wage for a frontline food worker is just $9.90 per hour, with an average annual salary of $18,900, substantially lower than the poverty level for a family four, which is $22,350. And workers are still subjected to racist and discriminatory treatment. Not surprisingly, whites dominate high-wage jobs, and white men earn the highest wages of all race and gender groups.

Continue reading over at Resistinc.org

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