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How Food Giant's Temp Workers Highlight Exploited Labor Problem

The employment practices of California-based Taylor Farms reflect a labor outsourcing trend in which temporary workers -- some of whom have worked 10 years -- are vulnerable.
 
 
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Taylor Farms security gate
Photo Credit: Isabel Avila/Capital and Main

 

Last April, when Federico Lopez and his sanitation team were ordered to clean a Taylor Farms storage area, the 23-year-old didn’t like what he saw.

“I went into the hallway that they expected me to clean,” Lopez remembers. “There was pigeon feces, dead pigeons, dead bats and black mold. I’m certified for that, but the rest of my coworkers weren’t.” The crew had only been given dust masks for the job by the temporary labor contractor who employed them.

When Lopez raised concerns about the cleanup, he says Taylor Farms, which is the world’s largest producer of cut vegetables and salads, assured him everything was fine and not to bother with the mess. He says that later that evening, an equally unequipped and untrained night crew cleaned the room. Shortly after, Lopez was given his notice after only three weeks on the job.

This month Assemblyman Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina) heard Lopez’s and other stories in the Central Valley town of Tracy from about 200 mostly Latino Tracy Farms workers and family members. Hernandez has introduced Assembly Bill 1897 (the Temp Worker Protection Bill), which would make Taylor and other companies that rely on labor contractors responsible for what happens to their workers when they’re on the job. Currently, these employees aren’t considered Taylor workers – instead, they are employees of the subcontractors who supply them to Taylor as though they were so many spare parts.

Thanks to this arrangement the two-thirds of Taylor Farms’ 900 Tracy workers who work for subcontractors are considered temporary workers – even though some have worked at Taylor plants for 10 years. They can be fired at the drop of a foreman’s hat for questioning an instruction or calling in sick.

Taylor Farms’ reliance on temporary, low-wage workers is part of a management revolution that has radically changed the fundamental expectation that hard work will be rewarded with fair compensation. Whether this outsourcing trend continues will determine how unstable the national workplace becomes — and how difficult entry into the middle class will be for American workers.

With reported 2012 sales of $1.8 billion, Salinas-based Taylor Farms supplies processed produce to Darden Restaurants (whose holdings include the Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Seasons 52 chains), plus Chipotle, McDonald’s, Subway, KFC, Long John Silver’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. It also supplies grocery chains such as Safeway, Raley’s, Ralphs and Kroger, as well as big-box retailers Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco and Target. If you’ve bitten into a Big Mac lately, the chances are that the lettuce leaf you tasted passed through Taylor Farms.

Taylor Farms is a central link in the country’s food chain — the system of food production and distribution from field to drive-through window and supermarket shelf. Taylor presents itself to American consumers as the face of farm-to-table sustainability, a company whose triple-washed packs of kale and vegetable medleys embody an enlightened corporate mission to celebrate organic agriculture, food freshness and dietary health. The company employs around 7,000 workers in 10 processing plants both in the U.S. and in Mexico. Its CEO, Bruce Taylor, who is also chairman of the Western Growers Association, earned about $850,000 in compensation in 2012.

However, an investigation conducted by Capital & Main into working conditions at the company’s Tracy plants that included scores of interviews with Taylor workers and former employees, and tours of worker housing, reveals a business model in which Taylor Farms’ spinach is treated with more respect than its production line workers. These workers are hired at the state minimum wage of $8 an hour by two local temp labor contractors. (Calls requesting comment for this article to both Bruce Taylor and Garth Borman, the president of Taylor Farms Pacific, which manages the Tracy plants, were not returned by press time.)

 
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