Hundreds and thousands of food workers plant, fish, haul, pick, pack, chop, fill, repack, box, deliver and serve our food. Some will get decent wages and civilised working conditions, but sadly, many won’t. Unfortunately, when we buy an item of food, we don’t know whether the people who’ve helped produce it were treated fairly.
What’s needed is transparency, well-staffed enforcement of strong worker regulation and specific measures to help workers to organise so they can make demands to get decent conditions themselves. Effective unions are also key in providing support, legal back up and advice. Citizens too need to demand proof of fair working when they buy food in a shop or restaurant.
It’s an irony that many of the people who produce and serve food can’t afford to eat it. There needs to be a spotlight on where the value goes in food supply chains, ensuring that corporate profits don’t take precedent over workers, farmers and the environment. Instead of a race to the bottom, food workers need better working conditions. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable because they can lack access to key information and ways to organise, given the language and cultural barriers they face.
In England, the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) was abolished in 2013, which means that farm workers here can’t negotiate effectively for decent working conditions. The AWB didn’t just determine fair wages, but also oversaw other crucial issues such as accommodation, transport, holiday and equipment. Fortunately, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still have Boards to safeguard their agricultural workers. However, in England workers merely get the National Minimum Wage and other statutory minimum terms of employment.
Powers exist to prosecute food worker exploitation and abuse. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority regulates businesses in the fresh produce supply chain and horticulture industry, and also covers exploitation across the entire UK labour market. However, it is seriously short staffed and underfunded, meaning that only the very worst of cases are pursued – which are of course important – but missing the ongoing misery of poor standards for many workers.
As the UK enters a post-Brexit trade landscape, it is more important than ever that workers in the food system are protected. We can’t accept liberalised trading and the watering down of EU labour standards. Food needs to be good for the people who make, process, pack, deliver and serve it as well as the rest of us.
This summary draws heavily on a blog written by Vicki Hird, one of the speakers at this Food Talks. The full blog is available here.