Cheap Food & Women’s Work

By Ivy Ken & Benjamín Elizalde

People tend to think about school meals from the point of view of children:  Does the food taste good?  Is it nutritious?  How much of it is thrown away?

Feeding kids at school, though, is also a labor issue.  We spent half of last year in Chile to study the school feeding program there, focusing on the labor conditions of women along the commodity chain that supplies public school children with meals.  The government outsources this public service to private companies that hire workers to prepare students’ food.  In Chile these workers are called manipuladoras de alimentos:  food handlers.  More affectionately they call each other tías or señoras de la cocina, and throughout the country these women are organized, unionized, and politically active.

In October 2014 the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, used the occasion of International Rural Women´s Day to announce a new law to support women’s work.  “All companies that help the state to serve Chile should be the best, with outstanding labor practices,” she said (translated).  The law applied to 40,000 manipuladoras along with cleaning and maintenance staff, security workers, and drivers, or in other words, employees of companies that contract with the state.  For manipuladoras, the law requires a yearly bonus of CLP$67,500 (about US$100) and salary for the months of the year when school is out of session.  To accomplish this, the government is supposed to give priority to the food service companies that agree to pay it.

The government agency that oversees the school feeding program, JUNAEB (Junta Nacional de Auxilio Escolar y Becas or National Council for School Assistance), has called the 2014 law a historic agreement between the government and the workers.  The National Director of JUNAEB at the time, José Miguel Serrano, remarked that, “We understand the magnitude and importance of the work they [the manipuladoras] do every day – they deliver food to children and vulnerable young in our country.  So reducing the wage gap between men and women, improving their living conditions, we assume as an ethical imperative from Day One.”

This largesse did not emerge from nowhere (nor has it been in place since Day One).  The terms were hard-fought.  Manipuladoras began formally organizing in 2012 to negotiate collectively for higher wages and better working conditions.  In the ensuing years they have sat down repeatedly with JUNAEB to discuss terms.  They have also conducted demonstrations and strikes when agreements have not materialized and when the companies the government contracts with have failed to honor their commitments.

Although President Bachelet signed the law into effect in 2014, many manipuladoras have not ever received the CLP$67,500 they are due, nor have all their yearly salaries all been raised to levels consistent with what Bachelet termed “outstanding labor practices.”  Director Serrano and President Bachelet have both acknowledged that the women’s demands are “legitimate,” and yet the companies the government hires to provide school food have too often been able to wiggle out of the terms.  These companies also continuously lobby JUNAEB to change the terms, such as the recent increase of the ratio of meals per manipuladora from 70 to 100, which decreases the workforce in most schools.  The women continue to negotiate, demonstrate, and strike.

The government of Chile—the country where neoliberalism was born—sees outsourcing as good business.  A market solution to a public need, though, will invariably prioritize profit over community well-being.  In this case, JUNAEB spends US$1 billion a year on school feeding, and yet Chilean children who eat at school are served cheap, industrial food and manipuladoras are forced to fight for every peso.  The real manipulators here are the companies that profit by structuring the school food commodity chain this way.  Students and workers deserve better.

Ivy Ken is Associate Professor of Sociology and an affiliated faculty member of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at George Washington University.  Her scholarship is focused on the ways inequalities are created and perpetuated.  With support from the Fulbright Commission she recently spent six months in Valdivia, Chile with her family, studying corporate influence in the country’s school feeding program.   She also is an editorial board member for Gender & Society. 

Benjamín Elizalde is a Historian and Political Scientist from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Currently, he is working as a Research Assistant studying the Chilean School Feeding Program from a comprehensive and integrated perspective. He lives in Valdivia, Chile.  

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