In 2007, Brandworkers launched Focus on the Food Chain, a worker-led organizing effort to challenge the rapid proliferation of sweatshops among the food processing factories and distribution warehouses that supply the City's grocery stores and restaurants. Instead of fostering a sustainable food system that promotes fresh food, a smaller environmental footprint, and good local jobs, NYC's food processing and distribution sector increasingly relies on the exploitation of recent immigrants of color, mostly from Latin America and China. Focus on the Food Chain creates space for the immigrant workers of NYC's industrial food sector to build unity with each other, gain proficiency in the use of powerful social change tools, and carry out member-led workplace justice campaigns to transform the industry. Focus members and their allies are using organizing, grassroots advocacy, and legal actions to build a food system that provides high-quality local food and good local jobs.
Exploitation in the Food Chain
While local and sustainable food is a hot topic, little attention has been paid to the human rights of workers in the food supply chain including workers in the industrial facilities that produce and transport food. 35,000 workers labor in New York City's food processing and distribution sector. The majority of these workers are immigrant workers of color, many supporting families in the United States as well as in their home countries. They are processing or distributing everything from the bread on our table to the spread on our sandwich; the seafood on our plate to the drink that goes with it; the soup for lunch to the container it's served in; the list could go on and on.
Despite the critical role they play in providing us the food we need to survice, workers in the City's industrial food sector are increasingly subjected to systematic exploitation. Workers in the sector contend with massive wage theft, illegally depriving them of the compensation they've earned to take care of their families. In factory after factory, Focus has documented large sums of minimum wage and overtime pay illegally withheld by the employer. For example, in our most recent victory, Focus members recovered $470,000 from their employer, a Queens-based distribution warehouse. Wage theft harms not only the directly affected worker but also workers at law-abiding employers who have to compete against companies who cheat on labor costs. Government programs are also adversely impacted as employers engaging in wage theft shirk their tax obligations.
Many employers in the sector show a reckless disregard for worker health & safety. Workers are regulary forced to work at unsafe speeds through long, grueling shifts. While employees work with dangerous machines, toxic cleaning chemicals, and sharp knives, safety equipment, training, and procedures are routinely lacking. Extensive field research conducted by Brandworkers in association with the Food Chain Workers Alliance and the Data Center, revealed that over 4 in 10 workers in the sector had been injured on the job. In 2011, disregard for worker health & safety in the sweatshop sector claimed the life of Juan Baten, a 22-year old Guatemalan. He was crushed to death in the tortilla factory where he worked after the employer failed to implement a simple and legally required machine guard on the mixer Mr. Baten was using. Brandworkers is proud to work alongside Rosario Ramirez, Mr. Baten's widow, as she pursues justice in his case.
Discrimination, abusive management, and anti-immigrant bigotry is also disturbingly common in the City's industrial food sector. In many workplaces, people of color labor in the factory or in trucks under all-white management teams. Senior immigrant workers of color are regularly passed over for promotion by recent white hires with less experience. All too often, workers are treated with disrespect, taunted with insults, and screamed at like children.
Member-Led Workplace Justice Campaigns
Despite the challenges, NYC's immigrant food processing and distribution workers have shown a steely determination to lead and win efforts for change. Focus on the Food Chain provides the opportunity for workers to build solidarity with each other and receive comprehensive trainings in organizing, campaigning, legal rights, and more. Equipped with these social change tools and leadership development opportunities, Focus members are carrying out campaigns at abusive employers to overcome injustices like wage theft, health & safety violations, and disrespectful management. An empowered base of worker leaders in the sector is growing and building towards a fundamentally transformed food system.
The first Focus on the Food Chain workplace justice campaign was at a leading seafood processing factory called Wild Edibles. Based in Queens, Wild Edibles is a top supplier of oysters, tuna, salmon and many other seafood products to New York's most celebrated fine-dining restaurants. Though a favorite of celebrity chefs preparing meals costing hundreds of dollars, Wild Edibles exploited its Latin American workforce, mostly from Peru and Mexico. Workers were subjected to large-scale wage theft, disrespected by management, and forced to work without proper safety equipment.
With the space to build solidarity, develop a campaign strategy, and learn powerful organizing skills, Wild Edibles workers led a dynamic and comprehensive campaign to win justice at their job. Through grassroots advocacy and media work, the workers convinced over 75 of New York's most renowned restaurants to stop serving seafood from Wild Edibles until workers' rights were respected. The workers' campaign created a powerful economic incentive for Wild Edibles to end sweatshop practices and come into compliance with the rule of law.
After navigating dogged resistance to change from the employer, the workers emerged victorious with an exemplary win. Our members recovered over $340,000 in illegally withheld wages and compensation for retaliation and won a binding agreement protecting all workplace rights including the right to address grievances collectively. Through the experience, the Wild Edibles workers developed as powerful social change leaders within their industry and within Brandworkers.
Last August in our biggest victory yet, Brandworkers demonstrated again the power of our member-led model to dramatically transform an unjust workplace. The Latino and Chinese workers at Pur Pac, a Queens based warehouse supplying many of the City's leading Chinese restaurants, bakeries, and cafes were laboring under deplorable working conditions. Employees were forced to work long, grueling work weeks and weren't even paid minimum wage or overtime.
Empowered with potent social change tools, the workers persuaded Pur Pac's top customers to stop using the company's rice, cooking oil, sugar, and other supplies until workers' rights were respected. Combined with two strategic legal actions, the workers' advocacy pierced through the company's retaliation and finally brought Pur Pac to the table. The workers recovered $470,000 in hard-earned wealth that they had been deprived of; won a binding code of conduct protecting all workplace rights; and won recognition for their chosen labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World.
Our most recent Focus on the Food Chain workplace justice campaign was directed at Flaum Appetizing, the producer and distributor of Flaum and Sonny & Joe's hummus as well as other kosher food products. Brooklyn-based Flaum exploited their immigrant workforce, mostly from Latin America, for years. Workers were denied hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and overtime. Abusive management hurled anti-immigrant epithets at workers and the senior executive team consisted exclusively of white managers. When workers demanded their fundamental labor rights they were met with fierce retaliation including a mass firing.
Through a powerful grassroots campaign, the workers persuaded over 120 of New York City's most well-known grocery chains to stop selling Flaum's products until workers' rights were respected. After an international outcry, Tnuva, by far the world's largest kosher cheese company, ended its distribution relationship with Flaum over workers' rights concerns. With campaign partner Uri L'Tzedek, the workers won the support of rabbis and a broad spectrum of concerned Jews through a series of dialogues in synagogues, community centers, and educational institutions.
In May 2012, Brandworkers' members at Flaum emerged with our biggest victory yet. Workers won a binding code of conduct protecting all workplace rights and recovered $577,000 in unlawfully withheld compensation. They demonstrated once again the power of worker-led change to win dignified jobs and ultimately transform the food system.