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Food workers are no longer invisible

Workers across the food supply chain are expressing concerns about their livelihood. Instacart workers recently went on strike to demand better conditions and higher wages. Instacart generated US$1.5 billion in revenue in 2020, with $35 billion worth of sales. It now has more than 10 million users across North America with 500,000 Instacart shoppers (what the company calls its employees) supporting the network. Instacart is available now in most major cities in Canada.

Instacart doesn’t have a union of course, but the collective of Instacart shoppers is using social media to ask the company to restore certain benefits, including its commission pay model that pays shoppers per order rather than bundling themThis would bring back the average commission to 10% from 5%. Instacart shoppers are also asking for more transparency around how orders are assigned, and a rating system that doesn’t affect shoppers for problems outside their control. Shoppers have also asked for occupational death benefits, noting the increasing risks they face on the job. Instacart shoppers are asking consumers to boycott the app until demands are met.

Over the years, UberEats, SKIP and DoorDash drivers have also expressed discontent. There is unfinished business as to how these workers are considered in the eyes of our labour laws, as employees or contract workers. While UberEats has settled the issue with a certain level of success, others are avoiding any debate. Foodora left Canada last year after drivers successful formed a union.

These jobs are all part of the Gig food economy, which brings food to our doorsteps. The Gig food economy is not falling apart, but it’s certainly at a point of rupture. Given our renewed collective consciousness about food systems, these workers have more political capital than they’ve ever had, and they know it, and many of us are paying attention. As inflation is impacting the global economy, wages are not necessarily moving as quickly, which is putting even more pressure on employers to revisit their compensation strategies.

The “old” food economy is also seeing its fair share of disruption as well. Nabisco, Kellogg’s, Mondelēz, Frito-Lay, Olymel and Exceldor have been affected by labour disputes in recent months. The fact that more food workers are striking or want to be better protected is telling.

Even President Joe Biden is seeing supply chains as a priority. To address the growing supply chain crisis caused by the cargo ship bottleneck, a deal was announced last week in which the Port of Los Angeles will begin operating 24 hours a day. Despite the fact the dockworkers earn more than $100,000 a year, the deal involved looking after workers and their safety. That was interesting. It wasn’t just about putting bodies in place to move things along. These negotiations implied that humans, are behind the success of any food supply chains. The tone has completely changed in recent months.

The “Hero Pay” fiasco affecting grocers was just the beginning. It was a fiasco because the approach suggested that measures were simply temporary or even transitory, to accommodate workers during a global pandemic. Galvanized by the fact that workers are hard to come by these days, the hidden food workers who have been all but invisible for years are finally getting their time to shine. So, expect more labour disruptions, and of course, higher food prices. The agri-food sector is inherently a high-volume, low-margin environment. Settlements these days are giving workers wage increases of 8% to 10% yearly, for many consecutive years. These increases can only entice companies to adjust prices. Our renewed social contract with the food industry will inevitably lead to higher food prices.

Rebooting the global economy after an unprecedented shutdown will not be easy. It will be like steering a huge cruise ship with paddles. It’s going to be that hard. But that ship isn’t the Titanic either, so we shouldn’t over-dramatize the situation. But rebooting the global economy will surely require all of us to recognize food workers as valuable stakeholders in the industry, and not just heroes for a day or two.

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