What makes food sustainable? It’s a complicated equation that encompasses the thriving microbial life of soil, rich biodiversity, balanced ecosystems and land and water free from pollution. But, in addition to a healthy environment, it’s increasingly about people – the people who produce and make your food.

Work and workers are at the centre of a new food conversation in the US. In part, this is due to the efforts of labour activists. Another reason is economic. “The worst labour shortage in recent history is forcing the restaurant industry to re-examine its practices,” says Saru Jayaraman, co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United) and director of the Food Labour Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s reached a point where workers can’t afford to work under these conditions anymore and they are leaving the industry.”

The picture is similar in other sectors of food labour. From the fields to the factory floor, willing and able workers have become harder for employers to come by. And that’s driving change. From the recent passing of a law in California granting overtime pay to farm hands and the national Fight for $15 campaign to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers, to new schemes aimed at guiding institutional and corporate spending toward the support of fair food labour, progress is starting to be made. However, there is still a long way to go before good food and good food jobs become synonymous.

Working in food, working in poverty

“The key issues in the industry that we’re trying to change, are wages, benefits, and racial equity and mobility,” says Jayaraman. Though ROC United has identified those issues as a focus for restaurant workers, exploitation and abuse are endemic along the entire food labour chain. From picking produce in the fields to processing poultry in industrial plants to cooking in commercial kitchens, workers face long hours and difficult conditions for rock-bottom wages and little else in the way of benefits, most notably health insurance.

Many are threatened with losing their jobs if they call in sick. A study by the US Centers for Disease Control found that 65% of norovirus outbreaks (stomach flu) could be traced back to food workers, 12% of whom reported working while sick and vomiting. In a 2012 survey by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, 86% percent of food workers in the US reported living in poverty.

Why should this be so? In the US, the food labour chain reflects social hierarchies – and political power. The hardest and least prestigious tasks – working as a farm hand, slaughterhouse worker or dishwasher – are typically done by undocumented immigrants. Unglamorous food service jobs, such as those in fast food or chain restaurants, largely go to women and people of colour. The more prestigious and better-paid jobs waiting tables and bartending in fine dining establishments, tend to be occupied by white men. Meanwhile, the restaurant industry’s trade association spends millions – over $4 million in 2015 – lobbying US lawmakers at both state and federal level to prevent increases in the minimum wage paid to most food-service labourers.

The peculiarly American practice of tipping which has roots in the legacy of slavery, plays a part in the low wages of many restaurant workers, while many other food and agricultural workers are exempt from minimum wage requirements. The two practices come together in a confusing patchwork of state and federal laws covering how and what workers in the food system should be paid. In practice, this means that farm workers are supposed to make the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour (£5.69), while tipped restaurant workers in 43 of the 50 US states make only $2.13 an hour (£1.67). It is a wage so low that their paychecks go entirely to taxes, so they live effectively on tips, an arbitrary and uncertain source of income. Activists often point out that this makes restaurants the only industry where customers pay the salaries of employees.

The true cost of food labour

Yet restaurants are not the only food business to shift their workforce expenses onto the public in this way. “You can go up the food chain and see similar setups in meat packing, food processing and warehousing,” says Jose Oliva, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. The use of 3PLs (third-party logistics providers) or “permatemps” is part of a growing trend for companies to turn more of their employees into contract workers through staffing agencies. “What ends up happening is these third-party employment regimes just externalise costs from the employer to taxpayers, significantly reducing or entirely removing benefits for employees and just covering the bare minimum of what the law requires in terms of a wage,” continues Oliva.

To the extent that the resulting shortfalls in worker healthcare and other basic needs are made up for, it’s usually through government assistance programmes. American consumers thus subsidise the food industry both directly, through tipping, and indirectly, through taxes which support these programmes. “Every Olive Garden [a popular restaurant chain] costs the US government a quarter of a million dollars a year,” says Saru Jayaraman.

Ensuring labour is sustainable throughout the food supply chain

But cheap food in America, the UK or other developed markets isn’t just made in local restaurants. Ingredients are sourced from all over the world, from palm oil plantations in Malaysia and soybean farms in Brazil to fishing boats in Thailand. How then does sustainable labour square with today’s multinational corporations and networks of trade?

“The challenge with food is really immense. If you are a food retailer or manufacturer, you depend on an extensive supply chain,” says David Schilling, senior program director for human rights at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR). “If a company doesn’t put in place some really rigorous policies and practices that get suppliers on board, down to field pickers and processors, there is potential for real exploitation anywhere in the supply chain.” ICCR is part of an investor (and consumer) led effort to make companies walk their talk on a range of sustainability issues, including food chain labour.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program is an example of an initiative that asks food companies to pay a market premium for produce sourced through fair-labour certified suppliers and growers. The premium is passed on to the workers, who are also part of the certification and monitoring process. Since the scheme’s inception in 2011, some of the biggest food retailers in the world have signed on, from fast-food giants like Yum! Brands, Inc. and McDonald’s to grocery majors Ahold and Whole Foods. Even Wal-Mart recently joined. “There has been a shift in the perception of the value of these programmes by companies,” says Nadira Narine, who directs strategic initiatives at ICCR. “They know it protects worker rights in their supply chain, and they protect themselves from reputational risk.”

Scale is also an important factor. Independent certification regimes that can accommodate the size and complexity of large organisations provide a kind of “one-stop shop” for due diligence. “Part of where I see some hope, is in something like the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) that requires companies to meet baseline standards in five value categories,” says Jose Oliva. The programme’s categories are ‘local economies’, ‘nutrition’, ‘a valued workforce’, ‘environmental sustainability’ and ‘animal welfare’. “The beauty of that way of approaching the food system is that it’s not left up to each individual consumer. It’s the institutions that represent millions of consumers,” he adds. Institutionally-focused schemes, aimed at shifting budgets and procurement policies in the direction of sustainable food have the potential for a big impact on the food system.

What consumers can do

Of course, individual choices still matter. To help diners and shoppers navigate the often opaque food labour landscape, there are several new tools available. ROC United has created a Diner’s Guide mobile app that provides employment information on popular restaurants in America. At the international level, Oxfam’s Behind the Brands website offers a scorecard for many of the world’s biggest food companies rating their performance on a range of sustainability issues, from workers to water to women’s rights. Finally, both shoppers and investors can consult KnowTheChain to find out how businesses are dealing with labour issues in their supply chains.

In the interest of even greater transparency, new kinds of labels showing a food’s ethical composition have been proposed by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Global Food Ethics and Policy Program. Similar to today’s nutrition facts overview, such an umbrella certification label would include labour standards alongside measures of sustainable farming, water use and animal welfare.

For the time being, action is still needed on a range of fronts to improve food worker welfare. Raising the minimum wage for tipped and non-tipped workers would represent one step forward, although as Saru Jayaraman points out, the minimum wage is not the same thing as a living wage. “The whole idea is professionalising the industry in terms of wages, benefits and mobility, regardless of race and gender,” she says. On a broader level, food companies from manufacturers to grocers could help reduce the incidence of modern slavery and indentured servitude by enacting due diligence on their global supply chains. And finally, institutions, investors and consumers can use their purchasing power as a way to express their values and support the communities they are part of.

Photograph: Alex Proimos. Creative Commons 2.0.