The U.S. food system accounts for about 20 million jobs, employing one in five private sector workers and one-sixth of the nation’s entire workforce. But, according to a new report released by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, many of those workers receive sub-standard wages, have little access to health benefits and have limited opportunity for advancement.
The report, titled “The hands that feed us,” shows that food-chain workers make up the largest percentage of the U.S. workforce, followed by health care, retail trade, education and manufacturing, which round out the top five.
The five core industries within the food system, including production, processing, distribution, retail and service, collectively sell over $1.8 trillion dollars in goods and services annually, accounting for over 13 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, according to the report.
However, among the workers in those core industries, only 13.5 percent surveyed for the report earned a livable wage, while more than 86 percent reported earning low or poverty wages.
According to the report, 83 percent of these workers do not receive health benefits from their employers and 58 percent do not have any health coverage. Meanwhile, 52 percent indicate they received no health or safety training from their employers and 57 percent claim they suffered injuries or health problems on the job.
The report’s authors call on policymakers to take a number of steps, including increasing minimum wages, requiring more employers to provide health benefits such as paid sick days, increasing penalties for employers who exploit workers and addressing workplace health and safety risks.
Noting that consumers have become more engaged in food issues over the past decade, the authors encourage consumers to “support responsible food system employers who are providing livable wages, benefits, and advancement opportunities for all workers, and who provide sustainable food.” They also ask consumers to tell retailers and restaurateurs they are concerned about the plight of workers, and to avoid supporting businesses at which workers have filed legal charges or have a campaign against exploitation.
Finally, the report calls on food-system employers to increase wages and benefits, adopt fair hiring and promotion practices and allow workers’ right to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Read the full report from the Food Chain Workers Alliance.