Hungry Workers in the Global Food System

Union leaders are beautiful speakers. Their voices reel you in with words that crest and fall, sonorous, resonant, exciting, inciting. You may never hear as many good speakers in one room as at a congress of an international federation of unions. In mid-May, I was an observer at the International Union of Foodworkers’* 2012 Congress, where I heard fiery union leaders wax eloquently about the situation of workers whom they represent. IUF member unions organize “food, farm, and hotel” workers – in other words, some of the most vulnerable workers in the employment sector.

A few themes emerged out of the Congress:  the challenges posed by precarious work, the particular situation of women workers, and the difficulties that workers face in feeding themselves and their families. For four days in Geneva, Switzerland, in a large conference hall with interpretation in 10 languages, speakers took the stand to share the stories of those they represent, and to pose possible solutions to the problems they face.

I was particularly struck during the session on food rights, when person after person took the microphone to describe how the foodworkers that they represented could not afford to eat the food that they produced. Paulomee, from the Gujarat Agriculture Labour Union, noted that one-third of hungry people in the world live in India, and that “agriculture labor, [which] grows food for everyone in the world, has to remain hungry.” Veronica from Barbados, speaking about the Caribbean in general, stated, “in most instances, we eat what is imported, we don’t eat what we grow … We produce food, but we are not able to buy food to feed ourselves.” A man from Latin America argued, “people starve to death every day … but no one is doing anything about it.” James from New Zealand stated that Maori workers struggling in a meat factory “see what is happening to them as a new form of colonialization.” Ivan, a rural worker from the United Kingdom, pondered the various reasons that agricultural workers are food insecure and “at the bottom of the pile”; his reasons included that they “suffer from the remnants of feudalism.”

None of this was news to me – one of the first things I learned when beginning to work on the right to food was the ironic fact that most of the world’s hungry are the people who produce our food – yet it was striking to hear people from around the world stand up, one after the other, and share essentially the same story:  we produce food, but can’t eat it. We’re hungry.

What are the solutions? That’s a tricky question, because many factors lead to food insecurity or labor exploitation in the food system, and thus many things must be done to improve such situations. But let me present some of the main solutions highlighted by union leaders:

Better laws
Food insecurity can arise in the midst of plenty of food. Paulomee from India spoke about starvation deaths that occurred in 2007 while grain rotted in government storehouses. Veronica from Barbados talked about people being hungry because cheaper food is dumped from Western countries, rendering farmers and foodworkers unable to sell their food and earn a livelihood.

Better laws can help change food systems to address why hungry people cannot access existing food. Paulomee talked about the National Food Security Bill that India might enact; the law would focus on legal entitlements to food, and she said that it would begin to fix the paradoxical situation of chronic hunger surrounded by abundant food. (Though not everyone is enthralled with drafts proposed by the government.) Veronica noted that the government of Barbados needed to stop the dumping of imported food, so that those who grew food could actually earn a livelihood. She also noted the need for higher wages for agricultural workers, so that they could afford to purchase food. These are issues that could be addressed through laws – trade laws and minimum wage laws – in order to improve the situation for food-insecure workers.

Stronger enforcement of labor laws
Laws are generally only as good as their enforcement, unfortunately, which means that even good laws on paper can be useless in protecting the rights of workers. This point arose when the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, who had been a guest panelist, highlighted Brazil as a good model for labor inspections, noting that inspectors and police officers conduct surprise joint inspections. A union leader from Brazil responded that she was “very concerned to hear you talk about Brazil” in this way. In one province, she said, there are more than 40,000 workers in sugar cane alone, yet only six auditors to undertake inspections.

Looking at the numbers cited by the Brazilian leader, it’s clear that government labor auditors are unable to undertake sufficient inspections to ensure that labor laws are respected. I found a similar situation in South Africa last year, where a mere 107 labor inspectors in the Western Cape were tasked with ensuring that all employers in the province, operating in all sectors, respected all labor laws. The inspectors simply did not have the manpower to do this effectively. And inspectors face particular difficulties inspecting farms (more remote, more dangerous, etc.), making it harder to enforce labor laws on farms than at other places of employment.

Thus, for workers in the food system to be protected, it does not suffice to have good laws. Governments must also enforce laws effectively, with sufficient labor inspectors who are properly trained and supported.

Union formation
Apart from labor law requirements, workers always have the possibility of negotiating with employers regarding wages and working conditions. Yet workers in positions of low bargaining power – such as agricultural workers – are rarely able to do this successfully without having first formed unions or other systems of collective action. When Ivan from the United Kingdom was ruminating on the reasons for the poor status of agricultural workers, he noted:  “in agriculture, there are millions of workers that have no collective agreements.”

Increased bargaining power through union formation enables workers to negotiate for higher wages or better job security, key factors in determining whether they are able to purchase sufficient food. Collective bargaining is thus particularly helpful in the absence of protective laws and effective enforcement. At the same time, however, forming unions can be more difficult in areas of weak law enforcement, if employers undertake efforts to block union formation. Strong legal protections of freedom of association thus remain important for ensuring that workers can organize safely and effectively.

Towards a world in which people working in our food system can feed their families
None of the solutions guarantee that workers in our food system will achieve food security. So long as food is treated merely as a commodity, access to food will generally depend on people’s ability to purchase it (or grow it themselves). Thus, even regular labor inspections will not help a landless worker if the minimum wage is too low to support adequate food purchases. Yet the broad solutions outlined above will help move us towards a world in which workers do earn enough to purchase sufficient food for themselves and their families, while small farmers earn enough to support their families. And the commitment of union leaders to lead us there, by organizing seasonal workers and migrant workers and female workers, is essential.


* The IUF’s full name is a mouthful:  the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations.

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