Wages in the Food Industry

August 27th, 2013

Worker Dignity

Next Monday, most Americans will celebrate Labor Day as a time of relaxation with family and friends. The holiday was begun with a more serious purpose of reflecting on both the benefits and injustices that working people experience on a daily basis.

As Christians, we believe that work is meant to be an expression of the dignity and creativity that God has given us all. Yet we also know that work can be misused as a means to exploit others. This Labor Day weekend, people of faith can consider issues such as whether workers’ dignity is upheld when they toil long hours and still live in poverty.

All of us depend on the labor of workers in the food industry, whether it is the farm worker who picks our tomatoes or the waiter who serves our Sunday lunch. For most of these workers, low wages, combined with few or no benefits, are the only compensation they receive for their labor.

Farm Workers Struggling to Feed Their Families

The founder of the United Farm Workers union, Cesar Chavez, once said, “It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.” Though decades have passed since Chavez made this statement, the reality of poverty wages in the fields, for the most part, has not changed.

According to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which represents tomato pickers in Florida, farm workers earn just 1.4 cents per pound of tomatoes that they pick. In a 2010 interview, worker Silvia Perez said she works 10 to 12 hours a day, and on a good day she only earns $50 total. The rate of pay has been the same since 1978. Poverty wages lead to extremely difficult living conditions. As many as 15 people will live in a single trailer, Perez says, some with no bathroom, in order to reside close to the parking lots where tomato pickers are selected for work each day.

Wage Theft in Restaurants

In 2009, the average yearly income for restaurant workers was a little over $15,000. In comparison, the average income for private sector workers that year was just over $45,000. Part of this reality stems from wages that are low to start with, but some workers also miss out on pay through a phenomenon that advocates have labeled “wage theft.” Wage theft refers to a broad range of illegal practices, including paying workers below minimum wage, keeping back tips that customers leave for servers, or not paying overtime rates when workers labor for more than 40 hours in a week.

Currently the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is just $2.13 an hour, although employers are supposed to make sure that tips added to this amount equal at least $7.25 an hour. If tips don’t do this, restaurants must pay workers the difference. Restaurants don’t always carry out that responsibility, however. Noel Scott was a delivery man for a Domino’s Pizza restaurant in Manhattan. Scott says he was paid just $5.46 an hour, with the restaurant expecting customer tips to bring him up to $7.25. However, Scott was required to spend many hours a day doing work that did not allow him to earn tips, such as putting pizza boxes together or cleaning the store. In addition, Scott says he did not receive tips that customers left for him on credit cards.

According to worker rights organizations, employees often know they are entitled to minimum wage or overtime, but the fear that they could lose their jobs may keep them from speaking up. Restaurant dishwasher Eduardo Jaramillo often worked 12-hour days for six days a week with no overtime pay. He waited to file a wage complaint until after he quit his job at Viva Portofino restaurant in San Leandro, California. After he filed his complaint for $2,674 in wages for his three months of work, his former boss threatened to have him deported.

Paths to Better Wages

There is much to be discouraged about when considering the wages of workers in the food industry. However, workers and their advocates are pressing for many types of solutions––some of which are already beginning to take place.

Workers who are ready to recover their stolen wages often approach workers’ centers, which are small grassroots organizations that help workers make complaints with government agencies, file lawsuits, or launch public campaigns to pressure businesses to pay back the workers all the wages they are owed. Some of these workers’ centers have formed coalitions with faith and community organizations to win stronger local and state laws to penalize wage theft.

Partnerships between workers, labor unions, and faith and community organizations have resulted in an advocacy campaign for a higher federal minimum wage. Legislation introduced in Congress this spring proposes to raise the minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour, to $10.10 an hour. For the first time, it would also tie the tipped minimum wage (currently $2.13 an hour) to 70 percent of the minimum wage. The proposed bill also ties the minimum wage to a cost of living index so that the wage does not lose buying power over time.

Farm worker unions and allied organizations have been working in recent years to create higher wages for workers by convincing particular restaurant and grocery store chains to pay more for produce, with the 3 premium passed on to workers. The largest of these efforts is the Fair Food Program led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, with the support of many faith organizations and student groups.

Since 2001, the coalition has used petition campaigns, public prayer vigils, protests, and marches to get major food retailers such as McDonald’s, SUBWAY, Taco Bell, and Whole Foods Market to participate in the program. Participating companies pay one cent per pound extra for tomatoes and require that the farms growing their tomatoes sign a code of conduct guaranteeing farm workers protection of their human rights. Since the program began, $10 million has been paid into the program. So far no major grocery store chain has signed on.

The United Farm Workers union is developing a new partnership with growers and retailers to link food safety to higher wages for workers. For example, berry grower Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce is paying worker Valentin Esteban $9.05 an hour, compared to $8 an hour that is typical in his area. Esteban is participating in a program that trains workers to spot potential sources of bacterial contamination in the berries he picks. “Sure, the money is important,” Esteban says, “but I also feel good because I am helping to improve quality and safety. Those things are important to my family, too.” Retailer Costco has agreed to pay more for the berries they buy from Andrew & Williamson once a certification process is in place for the berries. For the program to expand to include more workers, the participation of many more retailers will be necessary.

The Call to Justice

What responsibility do we as people of faith have to our brothers and sisters who provide us with the food we eat? Perhaps our first response should be to take more time to think intentionally about these workers as our brothers and sisters and the sacrifices they have made to bring food to our tables.

Mystic Meister Eckhart said, “There is no such thing as ‘my’ bread. All bread is ours and is given to me, to others through me and to me through others. For not only bread but all things necessary for sustenance in this life are given on loan to us with others, and because of others and for others and to others through us.” If we think and pray about the people through whom we receive our meals, our hearts are more likely to embrace ways that others can receive their bread through us.

Of course, when our sisters and brothers are struggling to make even a basic living, our prayers must lead to action. While our charitable ministries can offer workers temporary ways to meet their needs, such as a trip to the food pantry when there’s not enough money for food, Scripture repeatedly tells us we should also seek justice for the poor. Until all work offers a wage that can sustain a worker’s life and family, justice has not been fully achieved. As followers of Christ, we are called to work for justice that makes sure all workers are able to share in the fruits of their labors.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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