Food Movement: Another “Sleeping Giant” Awakens on Immigration Reform

By Navina Khanna, Joann Lo and Cathi Tactaquin.

What do food banks, food chain workers, and Dreamers all have in common? The answer, when it comes to immigration, is just about everything.

Today, our misguided immigration policies prevent us from providing healthy and sustainable food for all families, from upholding basic standards of human and labor rights within our food systems, and from creating opportunities for healthy communities for all children. In fact, America’s food system cannot thrive without fair, just, and humane immigration reform.

If you care about food, then you’ll be cheering that after years of organizing and advocacy in immigrant and progressive sectors, immigration reform frameworks emerging from Washington include a path towards citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Right now, no one knows the details contained in these proposals. Even so, we know we must build on this momentum to ensure that the massive public demand for immigration reform includes guarantees for immigrant worker rights and an end to detentions, deportations, punitive policies like Secure Communities, and other brutal enforcement policies. Such changes would go a long way towards ending the human rights abuses that our present food system is built upon.

The US industrialized agri-food system has always relied on cheap labor –- from indentured servants to slaves to recent immigrants — to ensure profits in an increasingly concentrated system. Low wages are coupled with poor working conditions and federal labor standards exclude workers in many sectors of the food system. Today, there are 20 million workers along the food chain in the U.S.; seven of the 10 worst paying jobs in the nation are food system jobs. In some industries more than half of workers are undocumented immigrants.

Immigrants who work in the food system, particularly those who are undocumented or with a vulnerable immigration status, are targets of human rights abuses, exploitation, and unfair labor practices. At worst, these workers experience modern-day slavery and sexual assault: in the last decade, for example, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has helped prosecute 9 cases of modern-day slavery in Florida’s tomato fields alone. At best, immigrant food chain workers experience stagnant poverty-level wages. Along the vast spectrum from field to processing, packaging, distribution, and to table, abuse and low-wages abound.

The Food Chain Workers Alliance 2012 report The Hands That Feed Us concludes that undocumented workers experience lower wages and greater wage theft than other workers in the food system. For example, from a survey of over 600 food workers:

  • Undocumented workers had a median hourly wage nearly 25% lower than all other food chain workers.
  • Undocumented workers were over 2.5 times as likely to experience wage theft than other food chain workers. Among workers who experience wage theft, undocumented workers lost nearly 90% more than documented food chain workers.
  • Undocumented workers were over 2.5 times as likely to earn less than the legally required minimum wage.
  • When food workers are exploited and unprotected, they are likely less able to provide food for their own families and to protect the safety and quality of our food. Because of their low wages, food workers use food stamps at more than 1.5 times the rate of the general workforce in the U.S. and suffer food insecurity at 1.2 times the rate. The United Food and Commercial Workers union also found that between 2001 and 2009, food safety recalls were more likely to come from non-unionized meatpacking plants than from those that were unionized.

Not surprisingly, the growing and powerful food movement – from strawberry growers to Slow Foodies – is beginning to make the connection between food and migration. In the coming round of immigration reform, the emerging convergence of food and migrant justice may be another “sleeping giant” with the power to make a difference.

The recent Brandworkers victory in New York City offers just one example of the growing collaboration between immigrant food workers, food advocates, and food consumers. On May 7, 2012, workers at Flaum Appetizing and members of Brandworkers International, a workers center that organizes food processing and distribution workers in New York City, announced that they had won a global settlement that returned to them $577,000 in unpaid wages and other compensation, as well as subject Flaum Appetizing to a binding code of conduct protecting workplace rights. The victory came after the workers had won their claim against the company for unjustly firing them for organizing. The company had fought back, claiming they did not have to provide restitution to the workers because they were undocumented immigrants.

Local victories abound and are creating vibrant new connections between the food and immigration movements. For example, in October 2012, food justice, anti-hunger, labor, environmental, faith-based and food producer groups came together to launch the US Food Sovereignty Alliance. At its first national gathering, members chose immigration policy as one of the Alliance’s three priority areas. Most recently, a new collaboration between Food Chain Workers Alliance, the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and the Movement Strategy Center is compiling stories of immigrant food workers organizing for a voice on the job, immigrant communities fighting for access to affordable, healthy food, and food chain employers who know that genuine immigration reform is in their best interest. This article is the first in a series gauging the power of the food movement as it begins to realize its influence in the current immigration policy debate.

This article was originally published on the website of Civil Eats on 11 February 2013.

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