Four questions on food 05/31/2018

Sonia Singh is a Leadership Development Coordinator with the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA). She has spent the better part of her life dedicated to fighting for workers’ rights, both as an organizer with Labor Notes, where she supported organizing and developed trainings with worker centres and union members across the U.S. and Canada, and with the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto, where she supported low-wage and immigrant workers to fight for fair wages and working conditions. Sonia is a founding member of Justice for Migrant Workers, a collective that supports outreach and organizing with migrant agricultural workers in rural Ontario. 

On Wednesday June 6, 2018, Sonia will join Tom Zizys (Metcalf Foundation) and us for a webinar titled Good Food, Good Jobs: Working for a Just Food System, where we’ll unpack how to improve wages and working conditions in food industry jobs and how good jobs can be a part of a more just food system. Learn more and register.

We asked Sonia to tell us more about her work on food and labour issues, and what kind of future she envisions for food workers.

What does a sustainable food system, one that that integrates labour justice, look like to you?

The Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) believes that a truly sustainable food system is one that can provide healthy and locally made food, but also lifts up communities, workers, and our shared environment. A food system that’s democratically controlled by communities would produce food that everyone needs to lead productive lives. A sustainable food system should lead to jobs that have dignity, livable wages, and meaning for workers.

What are one or two of the most urgent issues in the food labour landscape right now? How can North Americans tune in?

The food system is the largest employment sector in the United States. 21.5 million workers (that’s about one in seven workers) are involved in getting food to our tables. Numbers in Ontario are comparable -- core food industry occupations account for over eight percent of all jobs in the province. Most food chain workers are in non-managerial, low-wage positions, and in the U.S., they are predominantly people of colour, immigrants, and women.  These workers are at a high risk for experiencing food insecurity, wage theft, lack of access to health care, harassment and intimidation, and workplace injury and illness.  In fact, food chain workers in the U.S. make the lowest hourly median wage, at $10 per hour, and are over twice as likely to be on food stamps than any other U.S. worker. 

Many farmworkers in Canada, and also increasingly in the U.S., work through guestworker programs where they are tied to one employer with no access to permanent status, making them even more vulnerable to abuse. We are also seeing food workers and their communities being targeted more frequently in immigration raids.

The FCWA's No Piece of the Pie report provides an in-depth review of the issues facing U.S. food workers and the paths to transforming the food system.

What are some successes the food labour movement has had recently? Do these successes point to any key levers for change?

A couple of recent successes from FCWA members highlight some of the diverse strategies food workers are using to win improved conditions and dignity on the job, from workplace organizing to corporate campaigns.

In 2016, 500 farmworkers at Sakuma Brothers Farms in Washington State won recognition of their independent union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, one of FCWA’s member groups. Last year they won their first union contract, which guarantees a minimum wage of $15 per hour, safe housing and working conditions, and a grievance procedure, among other protections and benefits. Three years of tireless organizing included work stoppages and a boycott against Sakuma and its major client, multinational berry distributor Driscoll’s. They were successful in pressuring the farm to recognize the union and negotiate.

In 2017, dairy workers in Vermont that were organizing with our member, Migrant Justice, won a historic supply chain agreement with Ben and Jerry’s to advance worker’s rights by implementing the
Milk with Dignity Program in the company’s northeast dairy supply chain.  The legally-binding contract is the first of its kind in the dairy industry. Milk with Dignity is modeled after the Fair Food Program that has transformed the Florida tomato industry.  

4. One of the FWCA’s major campaigns is the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP), through which large institutions like schools, hospitals and government commit to purchasing food that meets high standards for labour and food. Why was this chosen as a principle campaign – was there a particular opportunity or was it seen as a key lever for change?

Our member groups saw institutional food purchasing as a key lever for change since public institutions purchase billions of dollars worth of food every year. Our tax dollars should be used to reflect our values as a community. That’s what the Good Food Purchasing Program does. It supports farm and food businesses that benefit our local economies, protect the environment and animals, provide healthy food, and treat their employees with dignity and respect. GFPP also brings more good food to low income communities.

Tune in to the webinar on June 6 for more discussion. Register.

And for more on what’s at stake in the Canadian context, read the
Metcalf Foundation’s series on Good Food, Good Jobs.