During a virtual panel on data protection organized by Food Tank and the Refresh Working Group, labor activists and food chain experts explored the ways that technology is supporting and impeding food justice efforts.
Moderated by Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg, and journalist Chloe Sorvino of Forbes, the event is part of a weeklong series about the intersection of food and technology. Panelists include: Kevin Krueger, Global Vending Solutions Manager for Facebook; Jose Oliva, Campaigns Director for HEAL Food Alliance; Chris Ramsaroop, founding member of Justice for Migrant Workers; and Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli, General Coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida.
Many workers in the food system, Oliva says, would welcome technology that replaces some of the most arduous aspects of their jobs.
But he notes that “Unless the technology is actually looking at [the issue] from a human perspective and not from a capitalist perspective…I think we’re eventually going to go down a path of having a huge number of people who are unemployed.”
If nothing changes, Oliva adds, those who are displaced will not be able to fill the new jobs that automation creates.
Krueger builds off of this, saying “I’m not convinced that, left to their own devices, market forces will…make sure we’re creating better jobs alongside this technology.”
While the current trajectory of automation gives rise to these concerns, the panelists say that there are also ways that technology is also helping workers resist exploitative labor practices.
Especially now, when the pandemic is hindering efforts to organize in person, social media and platforms like WhatsApp allow workers to connect with one another. “We are more interconnected with technology and so it’s a good way to build [a] message and make other campaigns…more aware of what we’re doing, even if we’re across the globe from where they are,” Xiuhtecutli tells Food Tank.
Workers are also using smartphones to accurately log their hours, reducing cases of wage theft. And they can monitor the temperature of the environment to avoid, whenever possible, the risk of heat-related illnesses.
But for technology to fully serve the needs of workers, the systems in which workers operate must change. The panelists argue that too many people fail to recognize the value of food chain workers or listen to their needs.
“Our food system is rooted in slavery and rooted in systemic racism,” Oliva tells Food Tank, “and that leads to this devaluement of the work itself.”
Skills training and the implementation of technology must change in a number of key ways, according to Ramsaroop.
While skills training can prove a useful tool to address inequities, employers must pay workers for the time they are putting into training. Also related, Ramsaroop says, is education, which governments must make more accessible. This is particularly true for undocumented and other marginalized communities.
Universal broadband is also critical to reduce the isolation many workers face. Finally, he argues, workplaces must be democratized, so that employers do not impose technology on workers; instead workers have control over new tools and how they are used.
“Technology needs to be developed with workers. None of us are going to be in a position to really say what will benefit workers without talking to workers about how to improve those conditions,” Ramsaroop says “And that’s only going to occur where we give workers the space to speak out, to have protection, and to end the reprisals they face when they do speak out.”
Watch the full conversation below and be sure to register for the remaining conversations in the series HERE.
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