Hesperian Health Guides

Food in the factory

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HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > Chapter 28: Eating well for health > Food in the factory

Many factories provide cafeterias or canteens where workers can go buy and eat food. The food might be inexpensive or free, but workers often complain that it is not very good, clean, or healthy. The factory health and safety committee should pay attention to food safety.

Having healthy and safe food in the factory benefits workers and management. Free or low cost meals nourish workers’ bodies and minds, increasing worker contentment and productivity.

A clean place to eat and store food

a group of people eating at a table under a shelter attached to a building.
Eating outdoors in the shade gives workers a chance to rest, relax, and breathe fresh air.

Whether the company provides food for workers or not, they must reserve a clean place for workers to store food they bring to work and an area where they can sit comfortably while eating. The area should be away from work tables, machines, chemicals, dust, and factory noise. The factory must also have wash facilities with soap and clean water near toilets and eating areas, so workers can always wash their hands before and after eating. Workers may also need a place to remove and store dirty work clothes while eating.

Healthier workers are good for the company, too

The managers of the San Pedro Diseños textile factory in Guatemala City decided to create a meal program in their factory to respond to workers’ demands and comply with new labor laws. The program included nutritious and varied subsidized meals, a clean dining area, an hour-long meal break, and cooking facilities for workers who bring their own foods. The factory subsidized breakfast and lunch and offered free snacks and coffee during breaks.

With workers happier and healthier, production has increased, medical costs and absences have been reduced, and staff morale is high.

Workers demand better food and win a new union

A Korean company opened a garment factory in central Mexico, promising workers pay above the minimum wage, meals, transportation, and a union. But the company did not keep its promises. The pay was low, the hours long, and the bosses harassed and threatened workers who were slow to meet production quotas. And all the food in the factory dining hall was often spoiled or improperly cooked, and served on dirty plates. Many workers got sick. Some were hospitalized for food poisoning.

2 women talking as they eat off of trays.
The vegetables have worms in them again.
That’s it! We’re calling a meeting. They need to stop serving us spoiled food.

Workers asked the company-sponsored union representative to do something about the food. When he did not, they called a meeting. The union representative also came to that meeting. The workers decided to boycott the dining hall for one day to demand better food.

That day, no workers went to the dining hall. When the boss asked the union representative why nobody was eating, he blamed the workers who had complained. The company fired 5 workers, refusing to give any reason. The union did nothing. More than 600 of the 850 workers in the factory went on strike and occupied the factory, demanding:

  • fresh, safe, well-cooked food in the factory dining hall.
  • a new union chosen by the workers.
  • reinstatement of the fired workers.

The striking workers were violently evicted by the police, but they continued to fight for a worker-led union for 9 months. They got support from unions in the United States to pressure the Korean company, the Mexican government, and the brand-name buyers of the clothes — including Nike and Reebok — to accept a new union as required by Mexican law and ILO conventions. The workers finally won, and their union became the first independent union in a garment factory in the state of Puebla, Mexico. With this union, they also won better conditions, including safe, clean food.