Two years ago, when the first US wave of COVID-19 left many people stuck at home, “essential workers” like grocery store employees became heroes—and caught COVID in huge numbers, with many becoming seriously ill, or even dying. As legal scholars Hilal Elver and Melissa Shapiro write, the pandemic has exposed the world’s reliance on workers across the global food system, raising questions about the treatment of these people even when there isn’t a global pandemic going on.
Elver and Shapiro write that food system workers, from vegetable pickers on farms to restaurant servers, make up about a third of the world’s workforce—1.3 billion people. And, around the world, these workers are often mistreated. Migrant workers in agriculture and fisheries are particularly vulnerable to brutal working conditions, and sometimes literal enslavement.
In the face of COVID-19, governments became worried about keeping up a steady supply of food. In many cases, they exempted food system workers from lockdowns and regulations on movement across borders. This has 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 workers.
Elver and Shapiro notes that, under the UN’s 1966 International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), countries are responsible for guaranteeing fundamental human rights, which includes safeguards for food system workers. There are also numerous international conventions certified through the International Labor Organization promising protections against forced labor and other abuses.
But food systems are overwhelmingly controlled by corporate actors, which have used their political influence to stymy efforts at protecting these rights. Many nations have failed to pass laws to protect workers. And, even when they have, lax enforcement and informal and non-union working arrangements make it difficult for workers to ensure that laws are followed.
This failure is ironic because food system workers are essential to ensuring another universal right: the right to food, declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
In both Europe and the US, during the COVID pandemic, courts have taken new actions to respond to worker exploitation. In 2020, an Italian court put Uber Eats into receivership for its treatment of African workers. And in the US, lawsuits filed against companies including meat processor Tyson Foods pointed to a lack of safety precautions, as well as racial discrimination.
Elver and Shapiro argue that the mistreatment of food service workers is not just a matter of bad behavior by their employers but a “state crime,” reflecting a systematic failure by governments to protect these workers’ rights under international law. They propose designating the severe, systematic abuse of food system workers as a crime against humanity under the Statute of the International Criminal Court.
“While it might be difficult under normal circumstances to propose such a drastic remedy,” they write, “the COVID-19 pandemic has showed that the international community must take drastic action to protect those who are most vulnerable.”