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In Low-Wage Britain, the People Who Produce Our Food Can’t Afford to Eat

A new survey from the bakers' union shows that 1 in 5 food workers are in food poverty – wages in Britain are so low that the very people who produce our meals often can't afford to eat.

Britain’s social and economic crisis has many layers and dimensions, but nowhere is that crisis more clearly expressed than among the growing numbers of people who are so poor they cannot afford to eat.

And there is no greater example of that disgrace than the fact that the very workers who produce and serve the food that we eat are regularly lacking the means to feed themselves and their families.

To be clear, these are the people who have put themselves in harm’s way every day to feed us all during this pandemic. They are not being paid enough to cover basic living costs, including the cost of food. That is, quite simply, a scandal.

At the Scottish Trades Union Congress this week, our Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union’s (BFAWU) Scottish official, Mark McHugh, spoke passionately about the experiences of food workers in Scotland.

He said that while many food workers north of the border help produce some of the world’s finest quality food like seafood and Scotch beef, these products are simply unaffordable to the very workers that deliver them.

This is by no means an issue limited to Scotland, as BFAWU’s new report on right to food legislation shows.

The report, published today, surveyed our members to highlight the harsh realities of food poverty which have gripped even more people during the pandemic.

‘I should have been shielding, but my work refused to furlough me. I had no choice but to work because I couldn’t afford to be on Statutory Sick Pay,’ one food production worker told us.

A food retail worker said: ‘The pay is terrible everywhere in these roles. To be honest it’s not enough to cover bills and food. It’s just not good enough.’

The truth is that conditions in our society are ripe for food insecurity.

From Thatcher in 1979 to austerity Britain from 2010, the political and economic approach has driven down pay and terms and conditions at work. Deliberate decisions were taken to erode workers’ rights and redistribute wealth in the wrong direction – towards the wealthy, and away from the workers.

During this time, most significantly—but not wholly exclusively—under Tory governments, there has been wave after wave of welfare cuts for those of our fellow citizens who fall on hard times and need support.

In the UK in 2019-’20, even before the pandemic, it was estimated that 11.7 million people were low income before housing costs – almost a fifth of the population (18%). That figure, shamefully, was even bigger when looking specifically at children – 3.2 million children were low income before housing costs (23%).

The responses to our study, aimed at food workers, found that almost one in five (19%) had run out of food because of a lack of money. The very people going out to work in food factories and shops to keep shelves stocked and fridges filled are coming home to find their own cupboards are bare.

In our study, 40% of the respondents said they’d eaten less than they should because of a lack of cash while more than a third (35%) were eating less so that others in the household got enough to eat.

It is for these people and their communities that my union is fighting to put the right to food into law and to increase pay across our sector.

A statutory right to food would mandate the government to address the key drivers of food poverty to ensure people were able to fully access their right to food.

The scope for this could be revolutionary in tackling hunger and poverty. Long-term benefits could include improved educational attainment and physical and mental wellbeing—which in turn reduce costs associated with poor health and increases in crime—as well as meaning businesses have a healthier, happier workforce.

In the world of work and wages, right to food legislation could result in some transformational improvements. A government setting a minimum wage rate that is not a living wage would not meet the measure of ensuring a person can access their right to food. BFAWU, therefore, believes the minimum wage should be irreversibly linked to the living wage as a minimum, but there is evidently a need for that baseline to be lifted to at least £15 per hour.

Similarly, a government that continues to allow the use of zero-hours contracts that have no guarantee of hours or work, and therefore of pay, would also fall short of satisfying a right to food. These policies would have to be delivered up to meet the criteria of ensuring all workers were having their right to food supported.

In social security, too, there are a series of improvements this legislation could deliver. The plethora of problems within the benefits system which drive people to food banks include reductions in the value of benefit payments, being turned down for disability benefits, being sanctioned, and delays in payments like the five week wait for Universal Credit. All of these punitive policies push people into poverty – enshrining a right to food in law could provide a bulwark against it.

As the largest independent trade union in the food sector in the British Isles, BFAWU has fought for our members for over 175 years. Workers not being paid enough to feed themselves and their families should be consigned to history. As the country emerges from this pandemic and returns to some normality, we must leave behind the Dickensian experiences of working people going hungry.

Food insecurity of course also impacts our most vulnerable, including our children. Too many of our children lack food at home, and too many fall through the cracks of school meals. That’s why we also believe that universal free school meals paid for through progressive taxation are urgently required to ensure no child in Britain in 2021 goes to bed hungry at night.

Tragically, this is a campaign whose time has once again come. Our movement must unite to fight for basic rates of pay and food security for all our citizens, guaranteeing people both food and dignity. Great campaigns are going on across the country and great work is being done by the likes of Ian Byrne MP in Westminster and Elaine Smith at Holyrood. Let’s join together and redouble our efforts to end poverty in Britain and the food poverty that goes with that.

The time is right for the right to food to be enshrined in law: to make food truly accessible, affordable, healthy, safe to eat, and fairly produced by well-paid and protected staff throughout the food sector.