At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, grocery stores’ shelves sat empty as consumers rushed to stockpile toilet paper, canned goods and other necessities. With roughly 50% of Americans transitioning to remote work, the pandemic highlighted the vulnerabilities of food system workers who were unable to work safely from their homes.
- Health and safety: Farmworkers and meatpacking workers were subjected to working in close quarters with limited or no access to personal protective equipment. They often lacked access to health care and proper contact tracing.
- Financial: Of the 1.4 million farmworkers, more than half are undocumented, and between 30% and 50% of meatpacking workers are estimated to be undocumented, excluding them from stimulus and unemployment payments due to their immigration status.
At the most basic level, the COVID-19 pandemic created emerging challenges for the health and safety of workers across the food supply chain. Digging a little deeper, the pandemic exposed a system of already weak to nonexistent worker protections.
Research and interviews with experts across sectors made it apparent that the pandemic did not expose any new human rights vulnerabilities for workers in these sectors but rather exacerbated existing vulnerabilities. Human rights risks were compounded by historically weak worker protections. While not an exhaustive list, six vulnerabilities have been highlighted as most exacerbated by the pandemic for workers in these sectors: labor trafficking, wage theft, unsanitary working and living conditions, fear of retaliation, unenforced worker safety standards and child labor.
A broad investigation of labor protections revealed that existing labor protections for workers in these sectors had mixed success in protecting them:
- U.S. policy: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency tasked with investigating claims of workplace risk, largely failed to protect meatpacking workers during the pandemic. Testimony to Congress regarding this issue indicated that all of the more than 13,000 complaints the agency received were closed without review or inspection. However, policies like the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act did provide limited financial support to many workers and business owners in these sectors.
- Organized labor: The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents meatpacking and other food system workers, fought for, and in some instances won, hazard pay and paid leave for employees. The pandemic also highlighted the success of relatively new forms of organized labor, such as worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) models. These models center workers in the decision-making processes, such as developing codes of conduct for the supplying farms. Many of these models both improved suppliers’ resilience and adapted to protect workers. The WSR model provided a structure to educate workers about COVID-19 requirements, and it established complaint hotlines and consequences for suppliers not following COVID-19 safety protocols.
- Legal action: Multiple lawsuits were filed on behalf of workers in farm labor and meatpacking sectors due to violations of workplace safety during the pandemic, but they did not have broad implications on worker safety in these sectors.
- Buyer-focused mechanisms: Before the pandemic, select buyers had instituted mechanisms geared toward protecting workers’ rights, including third-party audits, purchasing codes of conduct, and internal corporate supplier scorecards. While these mechanisms do not provide direct steps to protect workers, they do give buyers information that can inform steps to enhance worker safety. In one notable example, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) adapted its social audit procedures and questions for its member companies in the context of the pandemic. Depending on countries’ restrictions, the FLA either interviewed workers and conducted the questionnaire virtually or used a hybrid model. The questionnaire included the FLA’s six priority areas for assessment, but it included questions that were more specific to COVID-19.
The food system’s lack of resilience ultimately stemmed from top-down, reactive responses to emerging challenges the pandemic presented, rather than a proactive approach that would have allowed the system to adapt to changes. Policies and practices that center workers are necessary to not only prevent shortages but also ensure workers are adequately protected from potential risks.
COVID-19 tested newer approaches of worker-centric models like WSR networks in a pressure cooker. Compared with top-down models, these approaches proved significantly better at keeping workers safe. It makes sense: The people who do the work know what needs to be done to protect themselves and their coworkers. It is now time to shrink the power imbalance between workers and their employers to promote safe, healthy working environments.