Monday, February 29, 2016

Beyond organic foods and GMO labeling-Why are consumers ignoring the miseries of food workers?

Recent agitations by workers in food service sector in the United States for improving their working conditions and increased wages did not receive as much attention as it deserved raising the valid question whether the conscience of the world can really ignore this important human issues. What role consumers can play in forcing the hands of the industry in granting to its workers what is reasonable, equitable and justifiable? During the last few years consumer campaigns are focusing on issues like GMO foods and their safety, carbon foot prints of processed and packed foods, child labor involved in crop production, organic foods for safety, use of pesticides, health aspects of foods, environmental damage caused by food sector etc and consumers want all these information to be revealed on the package of each and every food item churned out by the industry. Fair enough because consumer as a citizen has a right to know what type of product he is buying. But what is missing in these campaigns is the extent of miseries and depredation to which the workers, pivotal in the manufacturing logistics. Many critics feel that such a narrative is no more conscionable and this issue must be addressed and consumers must demand that the products they are buying should have a "fair practice" certification to prevent the food industry from worker exploitation. Read further below to understand this conundrum.  

"There's a consumer psychology angle, too. Perhaps consumers are just selfish: many food-movement certifications help address self-oriented concerns— like organic produce being healthier, environmentally sustainable products saving the earth you live in, and non-GMO certifications ensuring a diet that's free of genetically modified organisms. A labor-friendly certification doesn't necessarily benefit the consumer in the way these other certifications do. That's only a partially satisfying answer, though — one that doesn't account for the altruistic motive behind cage-free and certified humane purchases, or fair trade. "The fact that there's a label on eggs gives people the opportunity to make a choice"
Another psychological explanation is that negative imagery is the most powerful driver of consumption choices. The popularized images or awareness of slaughterhouses and unsanitary production lines will drive buying where vague concepts like "a living wage" won't. Under that theory, the image of a product has to be tainted in public consciousness before consumers will shift to alternatives. Finally, there is a commercial explanation: companies have not offered consumers a choice for fair labor foods, restaurants haven't distinguished themselves as fair employers, and fair labor certifiers haven't penetrated the market sufficiently. Under that explanation, labor in food isn't a relevant question because there hasn't been a choice at all. "The fact that there's a label on eggs gives people the opportunity to make a choice, and I think that's why labeling is important," Bittman said. Most people don't get "the option of saying would you rather buy chicken where the people [in the] slaughterhouse are getting paid $12 an hour than where the people in the slaughterhouse are getting paid $8 an hour." If consumers had a significant opportunity to support fair labor food and restaurants, it's possible they'd do so. Each of these phenomena presents unique challenges — or perceived ones — for getting labor into our daily dietary choices. Nonetheless, solutions are sprouting. A new certification that includes labor as one of three key pillars has started making its presence known in stores. A new app that highlights labor-friendly restaurants has started to gain traction. The work of organizing and protest has started to force labor into everyday eating decisions. That national reckoning? It might be on its way.

A worker checks in on a beer in progress at the New Belgium Brewing Company (Hyoung Chang/the Denver Post via Getty Images)
If the profit motive is a main reason labor conditions are so poor, it might also be a reason they get better. Andrew Kassoy, Jay Coen Gilbert, and Bart Houlahan are three guys with an intimate understanding of the economic motivations. Kassoy spent 16 years in private equity, including his most recent stint as a partner in a $1 billion fund. Gilbert and Houlahan were cofounder and president, respectively, of the basketball apparel giant AND1. In 2006, they decided they'd had enough of the corporate life and united to launch the B Lab. One of the organization's projects is the certified B Corporation status, given to companies, rather than products, that pass muster on four impact areas: governance, workers, community, and environment. Kassoy came to the project after he became increasingly dissatisfied with the corporate world, where, he said, it often felt like "little else matters to anyone" besides size and money. The B Corp movement, on the other hand, seeks to use the "power of private enterprise to create public benefit." The status, unlike other certifications, is specifically intended to evaluate an entire business as ethically and environmentally sound. By brandishing the "B" logo, the theory goes, companies will differentiate themselves from the crowd as consumers, investors, and potential employees seek to support wholesome business. The number of companies buying into that theory is still relatively small — about 1,200 are B Corp certified — but many more want to know how they stack up. More than 20,000 companies worldwide now use the B Lab's impact evaluation metrics to monitor their business. The B Corp status isn't just for food companies, and it isn't just about labor — but it's currently the best resource for selecting labor-friendly food. Given the extant interest of the foodies in other concerns, a comprehensive standard might be the way to loop in labor. In fact, the commitment to an overarching certification is a response to the inadequacies of piecemeal movements. "Good businesses means a comprehensive, transparent view of a company's social and environmental impact," said Kassoy. That way you can avoid "unacceptable" situations where people are buying sustainable or organic lettuce but they "don't care who picked it." That multilayered approach, though, means B Corp certification can only be a proxy for a standalone labor certification for the food system. For example, companies can be better on environmental standards and worse on labor, and still become a certified B Corp. There is no minimum score on the "workers" component of certification, though Kassoy insists the B Lab "reserves the right to deny B Corp certification to any company that doesn't meet the values of the movement." Nonetheless, without a present alternative, the B Corp status is the best available avenue for incorporating labor consciousness into food purchases. It remains to be seen, however, whether producers and consumers are ready to embrace it: only about 100 food companies have attained B Corp status. The certification isn't attracting producers and driving behavior like organic and non-GMO movements have — and the companies that do are exhibiting some peculiar behavior. Take the two best-known food B Corps: Ben & Jerry's and New Belgium Brewery. Due to Ben & Jerry's sale to product giant Unilever in 2000, and New Belgium's rocketing popularity because of its Fat Tire brew, you can find both brands far beyond foodie hideouts. Neither have the certified B Corp logo on their packages, however. Instead, Ben & Jerry's flaunts its fair trade logo and boasts about happy cows and non-GMO ingredients. New Belgium notes its employee ownership in understated text on the front of the packaging, and its recyclability on the bottom. (The case of Ben & Jerry's omission is particularly confounding, since they go through an extra procedure to remain certified as a subsidiary of Unilever).

Even the best companies have been sheepish about boasting their labor record. King Arthur Flour is the highest-rated food B Corp on labor issues, and was named in the top five of any B Corp on worker impact in 2014. Katie Walker, a spokesperson for the company, described working at King Arthur as the "complete polar opposite" of the normal food industry standard — and given her description of work life, it's hard to contest. King Arthur, a company of 388 workers at the busiest times of the year, starts with a minimum hourly wage for full-time workers of $11.25 an hour (Vermont's minimum wage is $9.05 an hour; New Belgium's lowest wage for non-temporary workers is $12 an hour) in addition to stock ownership. King Arthur and New Belgium are 100 percent employee-owned companies, operating an employee stock ownership plan where employees are given ownership stocks of the company as part of their pay package — and can retain that influence over the company until they leave or retire and sell those shares back. In these types of companies, you aren't likely to find the type of pay disparity you see in fast food, nor the abysmal working conditions, because employees retain more power and are often more integrated in the decision-making. More worker-friendly conditions are a natural result. "

It is not that one has to brand the whole industry as inhuman because there are many players who are magnanimous in providing their workers with more than what law is required of them. Aggressive labor unionism has earned many workers in other industry sectors high wages and perquisites but should we be waiting for the food workers also to be aggressive to get a decent wage and a conducive working condition? There is the famous story of a diamond processing industry in Gujarat where each worker is treated like a family member and benefits are showered on them that can move the hearts of even a die hard capitalistic industrialist! Food industry workers are not asking for favors of such a magnitude but are craving for a decent wage that can give him and his family a decent living standard. While it may too much to expect that every label should carry the fare trade practice, what is practical is to certify companies based on their treatment  of the workers. Probably certifying agencies like ISO could incorporate provisions for auditing the worker treatment conditions so that consumers will have a means of satisfying himself that he is consuming a product made without exploitation of the labor. While arriving at what is equitable to the workers, caution needs to be exercised not to go overboard in showering them with unjustifiable compensation packages that may impinge on the price of the product to the consumer.  


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