Food

COVID-19 and justice for food workers

Uber Eats delivery people

Two years ago, when America’s first wave of COVID-19 left many stuck at home, ‘essential workers’ like grocery store workers became heroes – and caught COVID in huge numbers, many becoming seriously ill or even dying. As legal scholars Hilal Elver and Melissa Shapiro write, the pandemic has exposed the world’s dependence on workers across the global food systemraising questions about the treatment of these people even when there is no ongoing global pandemic.

Elver and Shapiro write that workers in the food system, from vegetable pickers on farms to restaurant servers, make up about a third of the global workforce, or 1.3 billion people. And, all over the world, these workers are often mistreated. Migrant workers in agriculture and fishing are particularly vulnerable to brutal working conditions and sometimes literal slavery.

In the face of COVID-19, governments have become concerned about maintaining a steady supply of food. In many cases, they have exempted food system workers from lockdowns and regulations on cross-border movement. This had the unsurprising effect of causing many of these people to catch COVID. There have been numerous outbreaks and countless deaths across the food landscape, from farms to grocery delivery people.

Elver and Shapiro note that under the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) of 1966, countries are required to guarantee basic human rights, which includes safeguards for system workers. food. There are also many international conventions certified by the International Labor Organization promising protections against forced labor and other abuses.

But food systems are largely controlled by corporations, which have used their political influence to thwart efforts to protect these rights. Many countries have failed to pass laws to protect workers. And, even when they have, lax enforcement and informal, non-union work arrangements make it difficult for workers to ensure the laws are followed.

This failure is ironic because workers in the food system are essential to guaranteeing another universal right: the right to food, proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

In both Europe and the United States, during the COVID pandemic, courts have taken new steps to respond to worker exploitation. In 2020, an Italian court placed Uber Eats in receivership over its treatment of African workers. And in the United States, lawsuits against companies including meat processor Tyson Foods have pointed to a lack of safety precautions, as well as racial discrimination.

Elver and Shapiro argue that the mistreatment of restaurant workers is not just a matter of bad behavior on the part of their employers, but a “crime of the state,” reflecting a systematic failure by governments to protect the rights of workers. these workers under international law. They propose designating the gross and systematic abuse of workers in the food system as a crime against humanity under the Statute of the International Criminal Court.

“Although it may be difficult under normal circumstances to offer such a drastic remedy,” they write, “the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the international community must take drastic measures to protect those who are most vulnerable. “.

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