In many cases, COVID-19 outbreaks can be traced to food production. Little has been done to protect workers who are already in precarious situations.

Over the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has caused unprecedented disruptions across the global food supply chain. The security and well-being of the individuals who get our food from farm to fork is frequently overlooked in policy discussions about global food security. Despite the industrialization of agricultural practices over the past several decades, food-supply chains remain labour intensive.

The International Labour Organization estimates that over one billion people worldwide work in the agricultural sector. These individuals are arguably among the most vulnerable right now to COVID-19, working on the front lines in the crisis with little to no protection.

In Canada, nearly 13 percent of the country’s labour force is employed in the agriculture and agri-food sector. This includes harvesting crops, food and beverage processing, transportation, retail services and foodservice provision. Before the pandemic, many already faced dangerous and exploitative working conditions. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequities and revealed the social cost of the food we eat.

Since late March, media reports have revealed cases of truckers being denied entry to restrooms, grocery clerks being harassed by customers, border closures delaying the arrival of temporary foreign workers and, significantly, outbreaks in meat processing facilities and on farms reliant on migrant labour.

In the United States, reporter Leah Douglas has been tracking cases of COVID-19 among food system workers since mid-April. As of August 3, her research estimates that at least 174 meatpacking workers had died of COVID-19 and nearly 40,000 had contracted the virus. In Canada, 949 employees tested positive for COVID-19 and two employees died at Cargill’s High River plant in Alberta in May. In June, over 1,500 workers were infected in a single outbreak at a slaughterhouse in northwestern Germany. Outbreaks in the thousands have also been reported on multiple occasions in meat processing plants in Brazil.

It should come as no surprise that meat processing facilities are at the epicentre of disease transmission. Modern slaughterhouses are often incredibly large facilities employing thousands of workers and processing animals in the tens of thousands every day. Employees, who are often racialized minorities, recent immigrants and temporary migrant workers, work elbow-to-elbow on fast-moving assembly lines that make physical distancing difficult. They work in extreme temperatures (hot or cold) in environments with poor ventilation. With COVID-19, dangerous working conditions are made worse.

Rather than acting swiftly to protect employees by slowing line speeds or halting operations altogether, many companies have been accused of ignoring physical distancing protocols, ramping up production, pressuring employees to return to work after they had contracted the disease and even offering bonus compensation for not missing shifts. Indeed, some of the largest meatpacking companies in the world are on record as having lobbied government officials to avoid shutdowns related to the spread of the virus.

In a letter to the governor of Nebraska in March, Smithfield Foods CEO Kenneth Sullivan callously stated that “[s]ocial distancing is a nicety that makes sense only for people with laptops.” There have been more than 2,000 documented cases of COVID-19 at Smithfield plants.

In April, Tyson Foods ran a full-page ad in the New York Times warning that the US food supply chain was breaking. While untrue (meat exports during the pandemic actually increased), this kind of industry pressure led to an executive order declaring that animal slaughtering and meat processing is a critical infrastructure. As a result, federal agencies, not local authorities, have the power to decide whether to close or reopen a plant. The executive order may also shield employers from lawsuits by workers who contract the virus on the job.

Worker vulnerability is not unique to the meatpacking industry. For example, the pandemic has also brought to light shocking abuses of migrant workers who pick fruits and vegetables across Europe and North America. However, while the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented, it is not the cause of many of the inequities facing agriculture and agri-food workers. Rather, the pandemic has revealed existing inequities while simultaneously making them more difficult to ignore.

The agriculture and agri-food sector exploits individuals who are economically desperate and willing to tolerate conditions that others will not.

According to Ricardo Salvador, senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, for all their modernization, 21st century food systems are still running on 19th century plantation economics, where vulnerable workers are exploited for their labour. The agriculture and agri-food sector exploits individuals who are economically desperate and willing to tolerate conditions that others will not. This means that the most dangerous and low-paid work is done by Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), undocumented migrants, refugee claimants and other low-income communities. Acknowledging the precarity of their employment and of their livelihoods is crucial to improve their living and working conditions.

Among other things, this means that if harvesting crops and meatpacking is important enough to constitute “essential” work, these workers must have pathways to citizenship in order to benefit from protections from exploitation, detention and deportation.

Winston Churchill famously said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” He said this in the context of global efforts to build the United Nations after the Second World War. The same can be said for global initiatives to eliminate world hunger in a post-pandemic world.

It is not enough to simply mitigate the effects of the virus on workers with temporary solutions of plexiglass shields and hazard pay. We are experiencing a unique moment in history, as consumers are forced to ask questions about where our food comes from, and to think about the people who harvest, process, transport, shelve and deliver the food we eat. Our ability to put food on our plates is caught up in and inextricably bound up in their well-being. Without compassion for workers, we expose them to exploitation and, in the process, bite the hands that feed us.

A longer version of this piece can be found in Vulnerable: The Law, Policy and Ethics of COVID-19, edited by Colleen M Flood, Vanessa MacDonnell, Jane Philpott, Sophie Thériault and Sridhar Venkatapuram, out now and available open access from University of Ottawa Press.

This article is part of the Addressing Vulnerabilities for a More Equitable Pandemic Response special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock.com, by Niloo.