The precarity of food system labor
No regenerative food labor is possible without considering that food chain workers are at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy. There are 21.5 million workers in the food system in the United States. This is the largest employment sector. One out of every seven workers is a food chain worker. Looking at their occupational position in the larger economy contextualizes the current scale and need for these workers, the barriers they face, and therefore the basis for any regenerative labor vision.
Despite the centrality of food labor to the overall economy and sustenance of society, food chain workers are often disposable and replaceable. As a reserve army of labor, namely a class of usually women and people of color workers that enter and leave jobs according to businesses’ drive for profit maximization under capitalism, they experience greater exploitation than many other workers. Indeed, in the restaurant industry, annual employee turnover varied between 56 percent to 80 percent over the ten years to 2016 compared to 40 percent to 49 percent in the overall private sector (Steinman 2018). Not only do restaurants rely on a flexible workforce that can continually fill these positions, but they also benefit from a vast part-time workforce vulnerable to economic recessions that faces mechanization pressures to eliminate certain kinds of tasks altogether (Jayaraman 2013). In this respect, the restaurant industry relies on a reserve pool of workers that it simultaneously helps to create. Similar pressures face other food chain workers as well.
As Americans continue to spend more money eating out than at home and as the share of disposable income spent on food remains historically low, the percent of people working in the food system is increasing (Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative 2016; Okrent et al. 2018). And yet, food chain workers’ median annual wage, 816,000, is far below the median across all other industries at $36,468. Because of this, food chain workers rely more on public assistance than the average worker. For instance, they incongruously use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program more than the average worker, and require greater public health insurance, energy and rent subsidy, and welfare support (Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative 2016). There are also racial, class, and gender inequalities: most food chain workers are not in management positions, which is reinforced by the gatekeeping role of those at the top of companies. Seventy-two percent of CEOs are white males, 14 percent are white women, and the rest are people of color (Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative 2016). Coupled with major gender and racial wage gaps and working in some of the most dangerous occupations in the United States, these disparities reveal how far the food system is from fully caring for workers.
But there is nothing inevitable about this state of affairs. Large surplus pools of workers are the byproduct of how capitalism organizes labor relations. As Fred Magdoif and Harr}' Magdoff (2004) note, “there would be no surplus of labor if everyone had enough to eat, a decent place to live, health care, and education, and workers had shorter work hours and longer vacations so they could have more leisure and creative time.” While mechanization of rote tasks and technological innovation that reduces human toil may create more opportunities to achieve some of these goals, the way these currently operate in food service suggests some underlying contradictions. In response, many food chain workers have pushed for initiatives to expand our collective social responsibility to ensure we all have access to the resources needed for a dignified human existence.