During Pandemic, It’s All Tricks and No Treats for Mars Wrigley Workers

October 26, 2020 | 12:44 pm
Sarah Reinhardt
Former Contributor

Everybody knows eating too much candy can make you sick. But if that candy was made by Mars, chances are the workers who packaged and distributed it also put their health at risk.

Mars Wrigley, the maker of M&Ms, Skittles, and Twix, is the largest and most profitable candy-maker in the world. Its warehouse in Joliet, Illinois is a critical distribution point for products generating millions of dollars in company profits each year.

Back in July, months after the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a global pandemic, workers at the warehouse found themselves facing life-threatening working conditions with few forms of protection. The warehouse lacked basic safety measures such as socially-distanced workstations, adequate warehouse sanitation, or COVID-19 screening, and worse, workers were systematically denied paid sick leave. When conditions prompted more than 100 workers to sign a petition asking for basic health and safety protections and hazard pay, their requests were met with rejection and retaliation. Many were fired, and some placed on a “Do Not Return” list, preventing them from seeking future employment through staffing agencies that act as gatekeepers for many local jobs.

Now, as the country apparently prepares to eat more candy than ever before, Warehouse Workers for Justice are organizing again to protect their health, safety, and jobs—and they need our help.

Why Mars should know better

Even if Mars wasn’t intrinsically motivated to protect its workforce during a pandemic, it has a number of partnerships and contractual obligations that should have compelled it to take action—at least in theory.

First, Mars is a founding member of the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, a quartet of megacorporations that also includes Nestle, Unilever, and Danone. Per its website, one of the primary aims of the Alliance is to “advocate for food and agriculture policies that improve people’s lives and protect the planet.”

And although sustainability is often seen as synonymous with environmentalism, that’s really only part of the story. Just as the exploitation of natural resources—such as healthy soil, clean air, and water—can threaten our ability to produce enough nutritious food for future generations, so can the exploitation of the labor force. No nation can guarantee a safe and secure supply of food for its children if it cannot guarantee the health, safety, and financial security of its workers.

Second, Mars Wrigley is a supplier for public institutions in Chicago, such as local schools and hospitals, under a procurement policy called the Good Food Purchasing Program. The Good Food Purchasing Program sets standards for food purchased with public funding, helping direct institutional spending toward companies that produce healthy and sustainable food that is produced fairly and humanely. Importantly, these standards mandate that all suppliers respect workers’ right to organize, engage in no workplace retaliation, and ensure workers are provided with safe and healthy working conditions.

Yet despite these stated commitments, it has proven difficult to hold the company accountable for worker mistreatment. This is due in part to the fact that the company’s operations in Joliet are managed by a series of third-party logistics companies, including DHL and XPO, and staffing agencies—some of which face mounting accusations of discrimination and exploitation. This organizational structure often functions to obscure decisionmaking and responsibility and prevent workers from organizing for better wages and working conditions.

Food system workers have long faced injustice

Though the spread of the coronavirus has caused additional strain on the food supply chain, it did not create many of the underlying challenges that have left many workers particularly vulnerable to the consequences. On the contrary, food and farm workers have been fighting for better conditions and protections for years.

The workers who power our food system—who grow, process, distribute, and sell or serve the food we eat every day—are among the nation’s lowest paid and most poorly treated workers. Despite employing one in seven US workers, the food industry pays the lowest hourly median wage of any major industry, and discriminatory and abusive practices are commonplace. Many of its workers are people of color, including immigrants who may be undocumented. This is particularly true in the farm labor market, which depends heavily on immigrants and seasonal guest workers. As my colleagues noted in a recent report on the dangers of heat stress among US farmworkers, only 24 percent of such workers in 2015-2016 were born in this country, and three-quarters were people of color.

How to take action today

There’s an easy way for you to lend your support to the Warehouse Workers for Justice in their struggle for safe and healthy working conditions. In partnership with the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the HEAL Food Alliance (of which UCS is a member), and the Chicago Food Policy Action Council, these workers are calling on Mars Wrigley to protect the health and safety of its employees and their families.

Sign the petition now asking Mars Wrigley Global President Andrew Clarke to meet worker demands, including:

  • Provide paid sick leave to workers so if they do have to quarantine, they can continue to receive full pay for as long as they have to stay at home;
  • Provide these essential workers the hazard pay they deserve for the increased health risks they take every day;
  • Provide personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer, which are baseline requirements for a safe and healthy workplace; and
  • Commit to adequate workplace sanitation by temporarily closing and disinfecting the Joliet, Illinois warehouse on a regular basis, while providing pay for work hours lost; and
  • Meet and discuss with the warehouse workers other steps that can be taken to ensure their safety without fear of retaliation.