Americans love to talk about food—how asparagus is best prepared, which preservatives to avoid, which types of fish are in peril, where to find the best tacos or most delectable peach pies. Most of us spend far less time contemplating the people that pick, slaughter, sort, process, and deliver the products of this 1.8 trillion dollar industry—a group of workers that makes up one-sixth of the country's workforce.
Unfortunately, the majority of these workers take home crummy wages and few benefits, according to a new report from the Food Chain Workers Alliance. Perhaps most strikingly, among workers surveyed by the FCWA, only 13.5 percent made a liveable wage (an amount FCWA defines as higher than 150 percent of the regional poverty level). And not a single agricultural worker of around the 90 surveyed said they earned enough to live on.
The Food Chain Workers Alliance survey results echo sobering realities about jobs across what the FCWA calls "the food chain": a vast network of laborers in the production, processing, and distribution of food. In 2011, the lowest-paying jobs nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, were combined food preparers and servers and fast food cooks; restaurant servers and hosts, farmworkers, baristas, and food preparers didn't trail far behind (and all made it in the bottom twenty).
"Jobs in the food system aren't seen as high skilled," says Joann Lo, Executive Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. "It's hard work; you need to know the right way to cut a chicken in a poultry plant. But the general perception is that they are low skilled and don't deserve good wages." Overall, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, food workers earn less than workers in other industries:
As the report points out, fair market Rent (PDF) for a two bedroom place (think: small family) is $949 a month. An employee would need to make $18.25 an hour to afford it; instead, the median wage in the industry is $9.28 for high school grads, and only slightly more for those with some college under their belts.
Sometimes these low wages had to do with employees being paid piece rate rather than hourly, making earnings more dependent on a worker's physical health and on supply fluctuations. In her intimate account of the working conditions of some food workers across the food chain, The American Way of Eating, journalist Tracie McMillan went undercover at a garlic farm to do piece-rate work. She writes of her coworker:
Even though Rosalinda's tarjeta will show that she came in at 5:30 a.m. and left at 2:30 p.m., a nine-hour day, her check will say she was there for two hours—exactly the number of hours she would have had to work at minimum wage ($8) to earn what she made via piece rate ($16). Later, I ask advocates if this is unusual, and everyone shrugs: Not every contractor does it, but they see it regularly. Earning minimum wage at our piece rate would require a speed that seems impossible: five buckets an hour. (In my month in garlic, I do not meet anyone who can average that for an entire day.)
Aside from crappy pay, most food workers surveyed by the Alliance have few or any benefits such as health care and paid sick days. More than three quarters reported having no access to health coverage through work, and over half had no health care at all. A glaring 79 percent either had no paid sick time at their jobs or did not know if they had this benefit.