Monday, June 18, 2012

The Social Injustice Web

Shopper in the market 5
Today, as I think about where to go next with my series on social justice, I find myself overwhelmed.  Whenever I think about one small aspect about it, it is like a gigantic spider web; one thread is linked to the next and the next and the next.  It is seemingly impossible to pick just one thread and separate it from the rest.  Pick an industry, pick a product, pick a neighborhood, pick a country.  Social injustice is everywhere.  I think this series could go on forever.

This article in Mother Jones caught my eye last week.  Food.  It's a national obsession in the United States.  All you have to do is look around you (especially if you live in the South) and it's obvious that food plays a major part in our lives.  Rapidly expanding waistlines.  Chain restaurants.  Cooking programs (actually entire channels devoted to cooking).  Giant supermarkets.  And when I hear people complain about prices, food seems to be the number one thing they comment on.  Yet Americans spend a much smaller percentage on food than any other country.  According to this infographic and Heifer International's February issue of World Ark, Americans spend about 7 percent of their income on food.  Compare that with Azerbaijan where almost 50 percent of income is spent on food.  The French spend about 14 percent of their income on food.  

Despite the extreme affordability of food, the food industry is a $1.8 trillion dollar industry.  But the food industry has a dirty little secret. The vast majority of food workers don't even make a living wage.  The Mother Jones article points out that one-sixth of our work force are in food industry jobs.  Yet only about 14 percent of those people make more than 150 percent more than the poverty level.  To put it in perspective, rent on a two-bedroom apartment averages about $950 a month.  In order to afford such an apartment, one would need to make just over $18 an hour. An average food industry employee makes about half that amount.  

Not only are these people struggling to put food on their own tables, they often work under stressful and even dangerous conditions (think about working in a slaughterhouse with large animals and sharp instruments or routinely being exposed to pesticides in agricultural fields).  And the jobs usually come without any benefits.  So, if a food service worker misses a day of work due to illness or a doctor's appointment (or if he or she just needs a vacation), taking that time off (and paying for the medical care) puts them even further behind, making it even more difficult to pay for that two-bedroom apartment.  Even if you don't care about whether or not someone can afford their rent, consider this:  restaurant workers go to work sick because they cannot afford to take the time off (or to obtain proper medical care).  

In Harvest of Shame, a 1960 documentary that highlighted the plight of migrant workers in the US, journalist Edward R. Murrow closes with this thought:  "The migrants have no lobby.  Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants.  The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables.  They do not have the strength to influence legislation.  Maybe we do.  Good night, and good luck."  This still applies today to all food workers.  

As we sit down to eat each day, social justice demands that we think about the hands that really did prepare our meals (or make it possible for us to prepare) and consider ways in which we are culpable in injustice - and then take steps to bring justice to the system.  When there is a boycott of food products, join it.  When farm workers or wait staff are fighting to unionize, call the company headquarters to let them know you support the workers.  World Watch Institute recommends targeting financial institutions that do business with the guilty corporations. Avoid eating at restaurants that Restaurant Opportunities Centers United lists as being among the worst restaurants to work for (their guide is here and an article summarizing it is here). Get creative and support justice.

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