Human Rights Day revelation: Global food companies suck

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:

  • Nestlé has been linked to the threats, disappearances, and deaths of labor organizers in Peru, the Philippines, and Colombia (incidentally, the country on which my previous human-rights work was focused.) According to the report, 14% of all intimidation complaints from members of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) in Latin America are related to Nestlé.
  • California-based Dole has systematically avoided complying with labor rights laws in the Philippines, where it grows and processes pineapples, by hiring contract labor not covered by right-to-organize laws afforded other employees. 77% of Dole's employees in the Philippines are contracted or outsourced. Dole has also collaborated with the Armed Forced of the Philippines on anti-union propaganda programs, accusing members of the union of being part of the New People’s Army (which is listed as a terrorist organization by the Filipino government). Unionists have also been targeted at Dole facilities in Costa Rica and Colombia.
  • Banana workers organizing in Del Monte operations in Guatemala have been harassed and murdered, as have Del Monte workers in the Philippines. (Sensing a trend? The Philippines are getting it from all sides.)
  • And then there's Wal-Mart, which likes to keep its oppression closer to home. Human Rights Watch has found that Wal-Mart "begins creating a hostile environment for labor organizing [in its U.S. stores] often from the moment workers and managers are hired," but if that doesn't do it, they're not shy about following up. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued at least 94 complaints against Wal-Mart between 1998 and 2003, including 41 charges of illegal firing for union activity and 59 charges of spying on workers. On several occasions where workers have managed to organize, Wal-Mart has responded by closing down stores or departments where the organizing is taking place, squelching union activity (and, I might add, economic activity in the town that now houses an empty big box store and a stadium-sized parking lot.)

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.

You can take action on ILRF's website or check out other groups working on U.S. labor issues: the United Farmworkers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and Farmworker Justice, to name just a few.

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!)

Related posts:

Photo of farmworkers in California courtesy of iStockphoto.

3 Responsesto “Human Rights Day revelation: Global food companies suck”

  1. Trina says:

    Hi Elanor, I just wanted to send a quick thanks for checking out ILRF's report.  We are always eager to connect with folks like you so shoot me an email if you are interested in talking more.  trin...@ilrf.org

  2. Colleen says:

    I'm glad that you mentioned the need for *international* labor laws.   Most consumers will buy the cheaper foods, which may be produced by the hands of mistreated workers, instead of the higher priced goods from countries with stricter employment codes.  If well-regulated, international bodies oversee the implementation of global labor laws, it will create an even playing field that would benefit both workers and companies.    

  3. JC Costello aka Man of La Muncha says:

    This is minor in light of your great post, but December 10th also was the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    I'm particularly fond of Article 5, but will point out that Article 23 prohibits the violations that the above companies have committed.  It really is time that the U.S., as a signatory to that document, started living up to its committment.