The Inequality for food and Ag Workers in the Pandemic

The Lempert Report
March 25, 2021

Jim Giles of the GreenBiz Group wrote an important and heart breaking column on

To review the past year he says he planned to write about how the pandemic has affected sustainability in food and ag. But he writes, he kept thinking of the number of people felled by the virus and asked himself different questions: Why didn’t companies and regulators in these sectors do more to protect workers? Or at least compensate employees for the risks they took on? His column points out that investigative reporting by the New Yorker, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and others revealed numerous examples of companies failing to implement social distancing and detering unwell workers from taking time off. It’s hard to be precise about the impact of these failures, but they surely play some role in the alarmingly high rates of COVID the U.S. Department of Agriculture found in counties dependent on meatpacking jobs. He also points out that Donald Trump issued an executive order in April that he claimed required meatpacking plants to stay open. (The order did not do that, but it was effective PR anyway.) Company executives and the former president faced a choice: safeguard workers and their communities, or ensure a steady supply of chicken nuggets. They chose the nuggets he says. He points out that workers on farms were, like retailer employees, initially declared to be "essential" — only to have that status watered down.

In October, a study found that one in five farmworkers in Salinas Valley, California, tested positive for COVID antibodies. Because of such high infection rates, federal vaccine guidelines state that agricultural and food retail workers should be among those second in line for vaccines, behind healthcare workers and residents of long-term healthcare facilities. But it’s up to the states to implement these guidelines. Workers in these jobs are typically poorly paid and more likely to be undocumented. They are disproportionately people of color. In California, for instance, excess mortality among food and agriculture workers jumped by 39 percent during 2020, more than in any other occupation. For Latinx agricultural workers, the increase was 59 percent; for Black retail workers, 36 percent; for white workers in food and ag, 16 percent. But there is one piece of good news that he points out: Unilever, one of the world’s largest food companies, publishes human rights data about its operations, which it uses to benchmark progress toward a commitment to paying all suppliers a living wage. The company is also committed to spending $2 billion annually with suppliers owned and managed by under-represented groups. If Unilever hits its target, that one company alone will ensure that more than a quarter of a million people in its supply chain, many in developing nations, will receive a living wage. When a pandemic or other disaster next strikes, every one of those people will be better able to protect their families. 

In the column he also discusses grocery workers – and that is an essential read at