Food travels far from farm to plate, and it wouldn’t arrive without the sweat and labor of millions of workers. From the people who harvest our food to those who sell it to us, workers are essential to keeping us fed. Yet we rarely thank them for their services.
Instead, waged agricultural workers around the world are paid among the lowest wages to do some of the most dangerous work available. They often confront obstacles to forming unions, reducing their ability to improve working conditions. In many countries, large parts of the agricultural workforce are comprised of undocumented workers from other countries, creating additional vulnerability to exploitation. In addition, the majority of global child labor occurs in agriculture.
Workers toiling within the food system but outside the field don’t have it much better. Slaughterhouse workers risk injuries and death. Restaurant workers confront wage theft and discrimination. Supermarket workers struggle to receive basic labor rights, such as paid sick days.
International law requires labor protections, and countries generally have domestic laws that protect workers. Yet agricultural workers are sometimes excluded from certain labor laws. For example, the United States generally prohibits children under the age of fourteen from working — except if the child is working on a farm. And regardless of which labor standards apply, the sad truth is that many countries are unable or unwilling to enforce their labor rules sufficiently.
Want to know more about foodworkers’ rights?
- Learn about workers’ rights campaigns in the United States via the Food Chain Workers Alliance.
- Check out reports by Restaurants Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY).
- Read recent Human Rights Watch reports on abuses against agricultural workers, including the report that I authored on workers on South Africa’s fruit and wine farms, as well as reports on migrant tobacco workers in Kazakstan and child workers in the United States.
- Pick up a copy of The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan.
Still curious about foodworkers’ rights? Find relevant Righting Food articles here.