Yvonne Yen Liu co-authored “The Color of Food” and is a senior researcher at the Applied Research Center, a racial justice think and action tank that publishes Colorlines.com.
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Injustice in the Food Chain
IN THE U.S. food supply chain, 20 million workers labor in hazardous conditions for low wages. Uylonda Dickerson was one of them. Dickerson, a 39-year-old single African-American mother in Will County, Illinois, would show up every morning, hoping for work, at one of the many warehouses that litter the landscape of her area southwest of Chicago.
The Chicago region, once a proud steel and manufacturing hub, is now a major portal for food and other commodities produced cheaply overseas, transported by rail from West Coast ports, and slated for destinations in the Midwest or on the East Coast. Ironically, the workers—more than 80 percent of whom are African American or Latino—who were displaced from good, union jobs when factories closed are now employed in bad, temporary jobs, moving goods made in China.
The warehousing and storage industry, which feeds big-box retailers such as Walmart, relies on a pool of temporary laborers. This exempts employers from paying living wages or providing basic benefits and workers’ compensation; it also short-circuits worker attempts to organize into a union. Their costs of living are then displaced onto society. One in four warehouse workers relied on public assistance to survive, according to Warehouse Workers for Justice’s report “Bad Jobs in Goods Movement.”
On days when there was work, Dickerson was not paid an hourly rate, but by how many trailers she unloaded. She was sexually harassed by male colleagues and harangued by her supervisors for taking bathroom breaks. The job took a physical toll: “My body still is not the same,” she told a Huffington Post reporter. “I still have aches and I still have pains. I have migraines because of the stress I went through.”