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The food and ag sector's inequality pandemic

Unilever is publishing human rights data and has committed to paying suppliers a living wage. Can your company say the same?

Farmworkers harvesting zucchini

An international team of farm workers wearing medical face masks harvesting zucchini. Image by Shutterstock/Iakov Filimonov

As we passed the one-year anniversary of lockdown in the United States, I planned to write about how the pandemic has affected sustainability in food and ag. But I kept thinking of the number of people felled by the virus — 536,000 people in the U.S. to date — and asking myself different questions: Why didn’t companies and regulators in these sectors do more to protect workers? Or at least compensate employees for the risks they took on?

Perhaps the most shameful shortcomings came in the meatpacking industry. Investigative reporting by the New Yorker, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and others revealed numerous examples of companies failing to implement social distancing and detering unwell workers from taking time off. It’s hard to be precise about the impact of these failures, but they surely play some role in the alarmingly high rates of COVID the U.S. Department of Agriculture found in counties dependent on meatpacking jobs:


COVID cases

Another administration might have intervened. Instead, President Donald Trump issued an executive order in April that he claimed required meatpacking plants to stay open. (The order did not do that, but it was effective PR anyway.) Company executives and the former president faced a choice: safeguard workers and their communities, or ensure a steady supply of chicken nuggets. They chose the nuggets.

Grocery workers also found themselves on the frontline. One study, conducted at a Boston store in May, revealed the infection rate in workers to be around 20 times higher than in the local community. Early in the pandemic, it seemed these risks would be acknowledged. Billboards lauded the contribution of retail workers. Some firms awarded them "hero pay" bonuses. Grocery retailers certainly could afford to raise wages, because the closure of restaurants led to a jump in revenues.

The pandemic and the profits persisted; hero pay did not. A November study from the Brookings Institution found that despite what the authors describe as "eye-popping" corporate earnings in the retail sector, the average worker at large U.S. stores had gone 133 days without receiving any hero pay

Workers on farms were, like retailer employees, initially declared to be "essential" — only to have that status watered down. In October, a study found that one in five farmworkers in Salinas Valley, California, tested positive for COVID antibodies. Because of such high infection rates, federal vaccine guidelines state that agricultural and food retail workers should be among those second in line for vaccines, behind healthcare workers and residents of long-term healthcare facilities. But it’s up to the states to implement these guidelines. Several, including Iowa, Massachusetts and New York, have pushed either grocery or farms workers farther back in line. 

All these groups — the lettuce pickers and the folks on the chicken disassembly lines and the crews in supermarket warehouses — have long suffered from another kind of pandemic: inequality. Workers in these jobs are typically poorly paid and more likely to be undocumented. They are disproportionately people of color.

When it comes to coronavirus, these factors are effectively preexisting conditions. In California, for instance, excess mortality among food and agriculture workers jumped by 39 percent during 2020, more than in any other occupation. For Latinx agricultural workers, the increase was 59 percent; for Black retail workers, 36 percent; for white workers in food and ag, 16 percent.

At this point, it might feel like I’ve strayed into a problem far beyond the control of readers of this newsletter. It’s reasonable to expect food and ag companies to keep workers safe. But if economic and racial inequity are the root causes here, isn’t this a job for governments?

The answer is only yes if you insist on the narrowest, profit-focused definition of what companies exist to do. Plenty of companies take a broader view by including metrics related to inequity in their definition of success.

Unilever, one of the world’s largest food companies, publishes human rights data about its operations, which it uses to benchmark progress toward a commitment to paying all suppliers a living wage. The company is also committed to spending $2 billion annually with suppliers owned and managed by under-represented groups.

Too many food and ag companies failed their workers during the pandemic. If your company could have done more, take a look at Unilever’s strategy. Ask your executives or board how they can implement something similar.

The results would be spectacular. If Unilever hits its target, that one company alone will ensure that more than a quarter of a million people in its supply chain, many in developing nations, will receive a living wage. When a pandemic or other disaster next strikes, every one of those people will be better able to protect their families. 

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