New Yorkers see food as an indulgence and a craft, amid a brimming urban cornucopia of artisanal honey farmers, craft breweries and bustling farmer’s markets. But good eating for this city is not just a lifestyle but a serious industry—one that’s often as hard on its workers as any fast food kitchen or factory farm. Processing plants and industrial bakeries churn out much of the city’s specialty food. And for workers, Gotham’s glamorous harvest belies a hidden rot.
According to a new report published by Brandworkers and the Urban Justice Center (disclosure: the author once interned and volunteered at UJC), the city’s food manufacturing workforce of 14,000 is an often neglected link in the food chain, tarnished by dangerous jobs, poverty wages and discrimination.
In a survey of the workforce, the vast majority immigrants and people of color, workers earned nearly $8 less than the industry average. About 40 percent of those surveyed reported being injured on the job—like in a fall or getting struck by equipment. Over half said they “had to work sick in the past year,” and most had never received workplace health and safety training.
In this industry known for organic baguettes and vintage pickles, labor practices contrast sharply with the nostalgic artisanal imagery. Some workers said they were repeatedly shorted on overtime pay. One worker estimated that he lost $6,000 or $7,000 each year in unpaid overtime wages. Others complained of erratic schedules that left them struggling to get enough hours to support themselves.
Drawing from census data and interviews, the report reveals sharp inequalities throughout the manufacturing sector. Women, who make up about 38 percent of the workforce, suffer from lower wages and tend to work in lower positions, even among long-term employees. Undocumented immigrants earned $2 less per hour on average than workers with legal status. Overall, one in five workers surveyed reported experiencing some kind of discrimination, sometimes resulting in lower pay or “being given harder, dirtier, or more dangerous work.”
One interview detailed the kind of discrimination that keeps women stuck in lower positions:
At the company where I work, a young man arrived to work a little while back, and now he is already a manager in spite of the fact that there’s another coworker, a woman, who had more experience, more knowledge, and everything. She was not valued. It’s terrible.
Workers often face retaliation for trying to organize. One worker recalled, “when we were organizing, the people that they viewed as leaders—like the people who most supported bringing in the union—well, they were fired, so those were the consequences they had to face for trying to assert their rights.” While other sectors in the food system have historically been unionized, such as transport and distribution workers, the decentralized structure and social marginalization of the labor force has impeded workplace organizing in manufacturing firms.
Brandworkers has helped advocate for workers in some of the most egregious cases. At a local kosher producer, Flaum Appetizing, the group helped bring a legal challenge citing “a failure to pay overtime and, at times, the minimum wage—for grueling work weeks as long as 80 hours.” There were also complaints of senior managers hurling anti-immigrant epithets at workers, and finally, the illegal firing of seventeen workers who had simply “demanded payment in accordance with the law.”