I have a background in human rights work, so I was especially chagrined to discover this afternoon — having spent the day skulking about my office and being generally useless — that today was International Human Rights Day. The discovery came in the form of a press release from the nonprofit International Labor Rights Forum, which released its roundup [PDF] of the five worst corporate violators of the right to associate. And guess what? Four of the five top violators of this workers' right are global food companies: Dole, Del Monte, Nestlé, and Wal-Mart. (Wal-Mart isn't a "food" company, you say? Think again, brothers and sisters — it's the largest food retailer in the United States.)
I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. As I reported in my Labor Day roundup, it's been a rough year for workers in the food system — from the folks who manufacture Teflon (and get to imbibe poison for their holiday bonus); to the Tar Heel workers at Smithfield, who can process 2 hogs a second but can't form a union; to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' fight against Florida tomato buyers. (On those last two, however, there is happily some movement: Voting on whether to join the UFCW began today at Smithfield's Tar Heel plant, and Subway agreed to pay more for tomatoes).
But ILRF's report paints a particularly gruesome picture of the threats that most food-system workers face when they try to organize. Have a taste:
There's been quite a bit of talk among foodies this year — at Slow Food Nation and elsewhere — about the need to incorporate workers' health and well-being into our understanding of a sustainable food system. As I've said before, they're the largely invisible link in the chain from field to plate. But they are perhaps the most important link — after all, they do most of the work — and their right to organize is more critical now than ever. As global food companies increase in size, their power over working conditions increases. That power can be, and has been, used to reduce labor costs (read: wages and protection for workers) in the interest of increasing profits. And ultimately, that's bad for anyone who eats, since underpaid and mistreated workers can't be expected to produce safe and healthy food. (That's assuming I even need to invoke self-interest — I'd just say it's bad because it's, well, wrong.)
We need a potent concoction of anti-trust enforcement, international labor laws, and strong unions to counteract the power that comes with market consolidation. ILRF's report is yet another reminder that we don't have it.
12/11 update: Daily Kos' Farmworker Justice reports that the Bush Administration is piling U.S. farmworker wages and working conditions onto its rollback chopping block. The changes haven't yet been published in the Federal Register, but they were announced on a Department of Labor website ... just in time for Human Rights Day. The irony is a bit too much to take. Read more here. (Thanks, Kat!)
Photo of farmworkers in California courtesy of iStockphoto.