By Jose Oliva, Campaigns Director at HEAL Food Alliance
I became enamored with the restaurant industry when I first came to the US. I was 13 years old and my parents were fleeing a bloody civil war that claimed the lives of several members of our family. Despite being a teacher in Guatemala, here in the US my mother could only find work in a restaurant.
It was only after I began working in the industry myself that I soon realized the glamor and fast-paced energy I glimpsed through the windows of my mother’s workplace was just a mirage. It was in fact the reflection of abusive managers, racism and a sexist environment unlike anything I had ever experienced.
Later, while studying American history at university, I learned that the restaurant industry’s treatment of workers was a legacy of slavery. Food workers, like farm and restaurant workers were purposely excluded from major pieces of legislation that guarantee rights for most other workers. And these exclusions took place because the majority of these workers were and continue to be people of color.
While working in the restaurant industry I became an organizer and learned about the farm bill — a massive piece of legislation that encompasses a wide range of agricultural and food-related policies that is redrafted every five to seven years.
Despite the critical role working people in our food system play to ensure that food is produced, processed, made and delivered, food chain workers aren’t even mentioned in the farm bill. It is yet another glaring omission of people of color, immigrants, and all workers. Including food and farm workers in the Farm Bill is necessary to ensure that our rights are protected, and we receive adequate support and resources to live dignified lives.
According to Food Chain Workers Alliance, a HEAL founding member, there are over 21 million people working in the food system today. Food chain workers often face significant challenges in their line of work, such as low pay, poor working conditions, and lack of access to healthcare and other benefits. Including food supply workers in the Farm Bill would ensure that we receive adequate protections and resources to do our jobs safely and effectively.
A Senator Booker bill, Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act, mandates higher safety standards and working conditions for workers, including protective equipment and social distancing measures.
The Restaurant Workers Bill of Rights (spearheaded by HEAL member ROC United) would eliminate the $2.13/hour minimum wage for tipped workers, amongst other improvements. Centering these bills and others that create better standards for food workers in the farm bill, should be a no-brainer.
The food supply chain is complex, and each worker in the chain plays an essential role in ensuring that food is produced, processed, and delivered to consumers.
Including food supply workers in the farm bill would benefit everyone who eats. As the Farm Bill comes up for renewal, policymakers should consider the importance of including a labor title in the bill and take steps to ensure that their rights and welfare are protected.
Join HEAL’s week of action for a Farm Bill that supports thriving futures for us all. Call your Congress members and ask them to include the Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act in the upcoming Farm Bill!
HEAL’s vision is for a 2023 Farm Bill that transforms our destructive food and farm systems, our health, our planet, and our communities, and prioritizes the well-being of BIPOC and rural communities and human and environmental health. Learn more about the secure dignity and fairness for food chain workers and their families HEAL policy priority for the 2023 Farm Bill.
Jose Oliva has a long history in labor organizing and has served in several leadership positions at Casa Guatemala, Chicago Interfaith Workers’ Center, Interfaith Worker Justice’s National Workers’ Centers Network, Center for Community Change, and the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United – the national organization of restaurant workers. Jose was the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance a national coalition of food-worker organizations that collectively represents over 350,000 workers. Jose is also a 2017 James Beard Award recipient and a 2018 American Food Hero Awardee.