Food, Race And Labor:
A Brief Explainer

A history of race, immigration and labor in the food system
Any conversation about the food system in the United States, must be grounded in acknowledging America’s colonial and racial history.  The United States is the result of colonization, beginning with  the arrival of European colonizers and subsequent seizure of indigenous lands and attempted erasure of their life and foodways and  growing through the extraction of wealth. Most of the indigenous peoples who survived displacement and genocide were forced to assimilate to a eurocentric economic system built off of the labor of African peoples who were kidnapped, enslaved, and forced to work in the fields and homes of the colonizers.  The nation’s early period of growth and rise to global power was contingent on economic and social systems that were exploitative and oppressive.  Many of the people of color who have now immigrated to the US were displaced and forced to migrate because of similar tactics used by colonizers in their homelands. The policies now enacted here in the US, including border policies, access to credit, loans, and land, education systems, healthcare systems, and punitive systems use divide and conquer tactics, continue to oppress Black folks, Indigenous folks, and People of Color. 

A case in point is the exclusion of farmworkers from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938. Historians have noted that this was a result of Southern legislators in the 1930s being intent on maintaining conditions for Black agricultural labor that was similar to those under slavery. When the United States faced labor shortages post Great Migration, thousands of Mexican workers were brought into the country to perform farm work under the Bracero program. Many were skilled farmers possessing traditional knowledge of farming techniques and agriculture, but the program was described by a former Department of Labor official, Lee G. Williams, as a system of “legalized slavery”. This set the stage for the contemporary H2A visa program or guest worker program, and the reliance on undocumented immigrants in farm work.   
In the following sections, we’ll learn about the multitude of challenges faced by workers in the food system, and how they intersect with issues of race and immigration. 
From farm to fork: Who are the people who grow, pick, package, cook, serve and deliver your food?
Occupations in the food industry can be broadly classified to those in production (farm and dairy workers), processing (slaughterhouse workers, manufacturing), distribution (warehouse workers), retail (grocery store workers) and service (restaurant workers and institutional food service workers). A 2016 study by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, found that these segments employ about 21.5 million people— that’s 14% of the nation's workforce, making the food industry the largest private sector employer in the country. Over 80% of these workers are in frontline positions, performing jobs as cooks, packers, and harvesters, rather than managers or supervisors. The vast majority do not interact directly with consumers, working behind the scenes to make sure our food gets to our plates.

The broad category of food workers encompasses a group that is diverse across age, education level, country of origin, and ethnicity. Over 40% of food workers are people of color, with Latines making up at least 23%. Due to the historical legacy outlined aboveIn keeping with history, when it comes to fair wages and opportunities for growth, the system is skewed against people of color. 
Many farmworkers arrive in the US as H2A visa holders or ‘guest workers’ to fill the need for farm labor in the country. These guest workers are exempt from many protections and benefits afforded to US workers, making them prone to employment violations and wage theft.

Despite people of color making up about 40% of the workforce, when it comes to top leadership, they make up less than 14% of the top leadership. In comparison, 72% of the CEOs are white men, while 15% are white women. Latino men comprised only 5% of food industry chief executive officers (CEOs), while Black men and Latina women made up less than 2 percent. Meanwhile, 72 percent of the CEOs in food industries were white men and fewer than 15 percent were white women. Leadership positions aside, there is a significant wage gap by gender, race and/or ethnicity in the food industry. For every dollar earned by a white man, Latino men earned 76 cents, while women of color earned around 43 cents. Native men and women face the largest pay gap, earning 44 and 36 cents to the white dollar respectively.

Aside from this, a large number of farmworkers and food service workers are also undocumented with no pathways to citizenship. As many as 70% of farmworkers are undocumented, and this leaves them vulnerable to abuse. As a result, they have less negotiating power with their employees than documented workers.
What's wrong with the 'tipped minimum wage' and why are food workers still fighting for a “living wage”?
The food industry is one of the most profitable sectors in the US and the largest private employer in the country. Yet, 80% of industry workers earn poverty level wages and, as we saw in the previous section, race, ethnicity and gender play a vital role in determining how much money you make as a food worker. The median wages for frontline workers in the industry is just $10 an hour, as opposed to the $17.53 in all other industries. 
  • In many states, restaurant workers receive a tipped minimum wage - frozen at $2.13 in 16 states.
  • 30% of all farmworkers had total family incomes below the poverty line. Farmworkers also often get paid a ‘piece-rate’, which incentivizes them to skip shade and water breaks in order to make enough wages to get by. The median income for farm workers today is $10.66 an hour, and many are price-gouged on housing costs and more.
  • Tipped workers are also more susceptible to wage theft and sexual abuse in the work place.  
It’s no surprise, then, that food workers face higher levels of food insecurity than the rest of the U.S. workforce.  In fact, they rely on food stamps at more than twice the rate of all other workers. However, undocumented workers lack safe access to public benefits in many states, including food stamps, meal programs, healthcare, and more. 

Check out this map showing minimum wages for tipped employees by state and visit the websites of these organizations to learn more about why workers deserve a better pay, and how they are fighting to make that happen. 
How do ICE and immigration policies impact food workers?
In August 2019, the U.S. Immigration and Customs enforcement raided poultry processing plants in Morton, Mississippi and detained 680 suspected undocumented workers. The raids sent shockwaves through the community, families were separated, children came home from school to find that both parents had been detained. The raids in Mississippi received national attention because of the sheer scale of the operation—over 600 ICE agents were involved in the raids

ICE is a relatively recent addition to the Department of Homeland security. It was formed in 2002 as part of larger counter-terrorism efforts following the events September 11, 2001. They began conducting increased workplace actions by the mid 2000s; in 2006, 1300 workers were detained in coordinated raids at Swift & Company meatpacking plants across the midwest, marking one of the biggest workplace raids in the country yet. Since then, ICE raids have become increasingly common in food manufacturing, convenience stores and restaurants across the country, burdening undocumented workers across the food chain and endangering their safety and livelihood. 

For most workers, the threat of detention and deportation means it’s simply far too risky to turn up to work.  Harsh immigration laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, that made it a state misdemeanor crime for a person to be in the state without carrying the required documents made farmworkers so fearful that many left the states, leading to huge labor shortages on farms. The gap they left  was filled by contracting free or cheap prison labor. 

While companies that hire undocumented workers are left in the lurch for a short period of time, they are often able to return to business-as-usual in a few weeks. In a piece for The Atlantic, Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, writes that it’s no coincidence that big food companies hire such a high number of immigrant and undocumented workers. He writes that large meatpacking and poultry processing companies recruited vulnerable immigrant workers in order to break unions and keep wages low. In fact, the company that previously owned Koch Foods, from where 300 workers were detained,  even launched a hiring drive titled ‘The Hispanic’ Project in 1994 with the goal of replacing African American workers, who were seeking to unionize, with immigrant workers who would be more compliant with the company. After the raids in Mississippi, it surfaced that Koch Foods knowingly hired undocumented workers, but no one at the company has been indicted yet. Meanwhile, workers in Morton and their families continue to deal with the trauma of losing their livelihoods and being separated from their families. 

According to 2016 data from the Pew Research Center, a significant number of undocumented workers work in the food industry—there are about 1.6 million undocumented workers in the agriculture and hospitality industries alone. 

The threat of immigration enforcement makes these workers increasingly vulnerable to workplace violations like wage theft, hazardous working conditions and sexual harassment. According to HEAL Campaign Director, Jose Oliva, who has been organizing food chain workers for over two decades, employers often use ICE to strike fear among workers so they keep their heads down and don’t speak out against employers. Workers that are undocumented also put themselves at risk when they approach the authorities or access healthcare. 

The drive to hire vulnerable workers who are easy to exploit, who are unable to unionize and make demands has been great for business, especially for large corporations looking to scale up and expand profits. Yet, as immigration enforcement becomes a defining issue of American electoral politics, it’s workers who are burdened first and worst. 
What does the prison industrial complex have to do with the food system?
The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country. Currently, 2.3 million people are in prison, some of them convicted, but many awaiting trial. But what does mass incarceration have to do with the food system, and with workers’ rights? 
To understand this, we need to go back to the history of the food system and agriculture’s dependency on enslavement for free  and stolen labor. Before the abolishment of slavery, the US did not have a well established prison system. Industries whose business models were tied to slavery found themselves in crisis mode after Emancipation since they were now without a free labor force. To deal with this, Southern states implemented Black Codes and other laws that would incarcerate formerly enslaved persons. By the late 1800’s, these prisoners were being leased to private businesses for substantial profit. In fact, before Terrell Don Hutto founded CoreCivic, a $1.8 billion private prison corporation, he ran a cotton plantation in Texas, where mostly black prisoners were forced to pick cotton for no pay. His story is not exceptional—the privatization of prisons was driven by the profitability of leasing incarcerated people to private businesses. The 13th Amendment still states neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist within the United States, unless it’s as punishment for an individual that has been convicted of a crime. 

The US food system relies on cheap labor, and agriculture has a long history of suppressing wages and working around worker protections by hiring from vulnerable communities who have limited access to opportunity and political power, like immigrants and undocumented workers. While rising anti-immigrant sentiment and immigration enforcement in the country have made it difficult to hire immigrant workers and undocumented workers, large farming operations have looked to incarcerated people to fill the gap. According to a 2017 report conducted by HEAL, over 30,000 inmates worked in agriculture, and they are disproportionately people of color.

Under existing laws, this works to the advantage of both the agriculture industry and private prison companies. Prison inmates are not considered employees, so they are excluded from federal minimum wage protections and don’t have the right to organize. In many cases prisoners are not paid at all and instead their wages are absorbed by the prisons. Race continues to be a central issue in today’s prison industry. Black people are six times as likely to be incarcerated, and studies show that white prisoners receive better paying jobs with more skill-building opportunity than Black prisoners do. 

Despite not having the right to organize, in 2018, prisoners across the US went on strike to protest exploitative labor practices among other things—their second demand was a call to immediately end prison slavery and be paid the prevailing state minimum wage for their work. The fight against the exploitation of incarcerated people is a fight against extractive labor policies in the food system as well as institutional racism, and the fight for food workers’ rights is incomplete without acknowledging and including the fight against the enslavement of prison labor. 
Technology is changing the way we shop, cook and eat. How is this impacting food workers?
Despite advances in technology that have enabled automation in parts of the food industry, food workers remain a necessary component in our food system, and that’s not changing any time soon. However, the nature of work and workforce organization have been heavily impacted by changes in technology. When it comes to the food industry, this is happening in a couple of ways. 

Adoption of tech-enabled ordering by fast food chains through mobile apps and self-service kiosks, was reportedly overwhelming workers who were now handling high volume of orders from multiple sources and who were oftentimes not trained in how to use the technology. A report from MIT Technology Review suggests that this could be one of the reasons for the high rate of turnover in the fast food industry. At the same time, increasing automation in farms could replace farmworkers, and create harsh working conditions for some workers. 

While the rise of food delivery apps have created new jobs that are part of the ‘gig’ economy, it's also surfaced new challenges for workers. While this new way of finding and managing work offers autonomy and flexibility to workers (the reason why many take this job), it also enables companies to cut costs and work around employment laws. The gig economy classifies workers as ‘independent contractors’ so they are ineligible for employment benefits or insurance, despite spending hours just delivering food, and often being the driving force behind these businesses. However, this might not always be the case thanks to the work being done by labor organizers. Last year, the State of California passed AB 5 a bill challenging the misclassification of workers as independent contractors, thereby protecting the right of workers to organize and claim employment benefits. Outside the United States, the European Union has already passed a law protecting gig economy workers. 

Despite claiming to be ‘disruptors’ in the food service industry, delivery apps like Doordash and Instacart were borrowing the exploitative practice of ‘tipped wages’ from the restaurant industry, and using tips to supplement workers’ pay. Uber, one of the pioneers of the gig economy model, was also found to be manipulating workers using features in the app, jeopardizing the autonomy they claimed to be offering in the first place. Protecting workers who work in the gig economy requires modernizing labor laws to match the emerging changes, and one way this is already happening is with gig economy workers organizing themselves.  
Our vision for a better food system for workers and how we are moving towards it
Our vision for a fair and just food system is one that creates meaningful and rewarding work, provides healthful, sustainably produced food that is accessible to all communities and nourishes the environment. This food system is part of an economy that includes regenerative, collective stewardship of land, water, and other natural resources, with vibrant opportunities for producers, distributors, and retailers to grow, catch, process, share, and sell local foods; where workers are owners.

This food system is part of an economy that’s not just fair, it’s resilient in the face of crises because it’s based in mutually reciprocal relationships, not the extraction of land or labor. This economy is about more than the market - it’s about democratic governance that’s accountable to an engaged populace, and cooperative ownership structures that generate real opportunities and wealth for all people. In this economy, traditional food ways can flourish, direct relationships between producers and consumers thrive, and human relationships and a sense of purpose are nourished, and life - human and otherwise - is more valuable than profit.

There is a long history of food worker organizing in the United States - beginning with the fight to abolish slavery, through the 1903 Japanese-Mexican Beet Boycott, the United Farm Workers’ grape and lettuce boycotts, and the ongoing organizing worker center and unions fighting and winning on local and national levels today. Many groups, some of them HEAL members, are working to actualize parts of this vision. They are organizing workers to fight for better wages and working conditions and lobbying Congress to pass bills that will increase the minimum wage, and provide health benefits for workers. Many are up against big corporations like Walmart, Amazon, and Hannaford. Others, like Florida Farmworkers Association and Worker Justice Center of Central New York offer health and legal services to workers, especially farmworkers. Organizations like Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Alliance, are actively working on campaigns like the Good Food Purchasing Program which shift public procurement dollars to sources that uphold workers' values. Groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Migrant Justice are setting their own standards for fair food, and ensuring that workers can enforce implementation of these standards. There are wins in other sectors as well - for example, as a result of organizing by groups like Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) and One Fair Wage and the  #Fightfor15 campaign, some states have raised the tipped minimum wage, and 8 states eliminated tipped minimum wage altogether. 

The vision to move away from private ownership in an industry where corporate consolidation is the norm is an ambitious one, but organizations across the country, including some HEAL members, are already making strides in laying the foundations for this shift. For example, CoFED (the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive) has developed “12 new cooperative projects and trained over 600 emerging cooperative leaders”. 

Together these organizations are reforming policy, developing new practices, and envisioning and creating a future where the food system is made up of people whose work is dignified and respected, whose families are cared for, and whose practices steward the environment.
How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting food workers?
Over the course of the last three weeks, the entire country, and much of the world, has reoriented itself to a new normal to contain the spread of COVID-19. Food workers, who are already navigating a system that is stacked against them, find themselves in a unique position. One one hand, their work in grocery stores, food processing plants and warehouses have been classified as essential, highlighting the vital role they play in keeping society fed and functioning. But at the same time, those that are going into work are facing the same denial of rights and protections that they always did. 

Unsafe working conditions
Food workers already work under grueling circumstances, and the novel coronavirus has increased the risk for food workers all along the food chain. Food workers, from farms to grocery stores and delivery services, have continued to go to work while many of us are sheltering in place. In part, because their work is legally seen as “essential,” which it is, and because many do not have the financial option to stay home. Only 25% of food workers receive paid sick leave.  This means food workers across the food chain are having to choose between their economic survival and their health. Large companies, like Whole Foods, are only offering paid sick leave to those who have tested positive for COVID-19, ignoring doctor’s recommendations for self-quarantine and the widespread unavailability of testing.

 A recent poll conducted by UFW showed that over 90% of farmworkers who responded had not been advised by their employers on best practices to resist COVID-19. Retail employees, who come into close contact with the public are in an especially vulnerable position. And precautionary measures, from fields to warehouses to retail stores, have not been codified. For example, workers don’t have access to the time or resources to wash their hands frequently, wear protective gear. This is why employees of major companies such as Instacart, Whole Foods, Kroger, and Tyson, and other employees have staged walkouts over the past two weeks to demand safer working conditions. They are putting their lives, and the lives of their communities, on the line. All of this applies to those workers who still have their jobs—many workers, especially those in the foodservice industry, are finding themselves without any income for the next few weeks as restaurants and cafeterias remain shut in many parts of the country. 

Heightened food insecurity
Ironically, food workers were twice as likely to use food stamps than any other workers, even before the COVID19 pandemic. As shelter-in-place measures decimate the food service industry, many are left with very few options. People around the US have reacted to to these measures by stockpiling food and cleaning supplies. When food workers have the chance to go shopping, they are met with empty shelves in grocery and convenience stores. Mily Treviño-Sauceda, executive director of the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas said, “They’ve told me, ‘We have nowhere to get food. The corner markets and dollar stores have empty shelves (and they aren’t restocking).’” This is worsened in rural areas who do not have the infrastructure to restock as frequently as major cities. When it comes to farm workers, nearly half lack legal work authorization, making them ineligible for sick pay or health insurance. If they stop working: they won’t only lose a paycheck, it is likely they’ll lose their jobs. 

Threat of detention
Immigrant and undocumented workers, who make up a significant portion of food workers, especially in the farming, hospitality and service sectors are among the most severely impacted by the current crisis. The Trump administration’s “public charge” rule which went into effect in February has made many immigrant workers wary of availing public health services like unemployment benefit or food assistance, which will enable them to survive during this time.

Legal work status also determines access to sick leave and job security, with undocumented workers working while sick because they fear losing their jobs. Furthermore, those who lack legal authorization are also unlikely to seek care if they get sick from fear of being arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement(ICE). Although ICE has assured people they will not arrest anyone that is seeking medical help, many are skeptical as ICE continued to make arrests in California even during the statewide lockdown. Furthermore, ICE detention centers are also dangerously susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks that could endanger the health of over 30,000 detainees—one has already tested positive for the virus. 

In survival mode
In response to emerging needs, workers have come together, organized themselves and secured basic health and safety protections, and fair working conditions like paid sick leave from their employers or from local governments. Last week, 1000s of Amazon employees began to accrue paid time off because of over six months of organizing efforts led by a workers group. It is worker organizing that has led large companies like Walmart and McDonalds to change their policy and offer paid time off to workers.  Last week, workers at a Perdue Farms plant in Georgia staged a walkout amid concerns about going to work during COVID-19. 

The current reality has exposed the deplorable state of worker benefits and protection in our country, especially in food work. The only thing enabling food workers to protect themselves and their communities is their right to organize. We must call for this right to be expanded and include all workers, like farmworkers, who are still denied the right to unionize in most US states.