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Decent food at work: Raising workers' productivity and well-being

In the workplace, the main concerns of employers and trade unions seem to be safety, wages and job security. The question how do workers eat while at work is not always given much thought, according to a new ILO study. Too often the workplace meal programme is either an afterthought or not even considered by employers. But access to healthy food is as essential as protection from workplace chemicals or noise. The study demonstrates that good nutrition at work is good business leading to gains in productivity and worker morale, prevention of accidents and premature deaths, and reductions in health-care costs. Adequate nourishment can raise national productivity levels by 20 per cent and a 1 per cent kilocalorie (kcal) increase results in a 2.27 per cent increase in general labour productivity.

Article | 28 July 2005

GUATEMALA CITY - San Pedro Diseños is a textile company in Guatemala City founded in the early 1990s. The company produces T-shirts, blouses, skirts, jackets, jeans, trousers and casual shorts for major brands in industrialized countries.

In the past, workers of the plant faced the same problems as the rest of the nation: approximately 60 per cent of homes in Guatemala do not have enough income to provide the calories and nutrients required. Since 1997, two minimum wages are needed to cover the basic food cost for a family.

Several years ago the company established an occupational safety and health programme, including a revamped meal programme to address workers' lack of calories and nutrients. The basics of the new meal programme include cooking facilities, a dining area, subsidized meals, an hour-long meal break, free sweet bread and coffee during the breaks and a healthy, varied menu.

Management had realized that the majority of workers started their day without breakfast and many didn't have a nutritious lunch. As around three quarters of the population, the workers at San Pedro Diseños had a typically meagre and unvaried diet of rice, beans and corn tortilla.

Workers can now enjoy breakfast and lunch. The managers and owners share the same facilities and eat the same food. Lunch contains 1,000-1,100 kcal, about half the daily requirement to perform the type of work at San Pedro Diseños, mainly the operation of sewing machines.

According to the managers, since the creation of the new meal programme there have been many rewards: Workers are more productive and more satisfied, morale is higher, absenteeism and the need for rotation due to illness have fallen and medical costs are down. Since 2001, production has increased by around 70 per cent and annual earnings have increased approximately 20 per cent.

Set in the heart of Europe, problems with food at work are somewhat different in Austria where 12 per cent of the population was obese in 2001. Buoyed by a strong economy and social awareness among the Austrian people, six Austrian trade unions have established a catering concept called " Gesund, leicht und fair essen im Betrieb" or "Light, Healthy and Fair Eating in the Workplace".

The "light and healthy" part of the slogan signifies a deliberate effort to address the trend of unhealthy eating and rising obesity and chronic disease rates in Austria which are among the highest in Western Europe. The "fair" part of the union slogan refers to whether the food served in canteens was produced and acquired in an environmentally and socially friendly manner.

The impact of such a programme can be broad, for about 1.5 million workers in Austria use workplace canteens every day. Decision-makers in company and public sector catering facilities should meet quality criteria that respond to customer requirements for fresh, tasty and healthy food, even if it costs a bit more. They are called upon to discuss these criteria with their suppliers and to specify them in invitations to tender. This is how the initiative hopes to be a boost to local agriculture at the same time.

Workplace meal programmes: good for workers and good for business

These are two out of several positive examples presented in the new ILO study of how governments, employers and trade unions are trying to improve workers' nutrition.

In wealthier nations, where obesity and related diseases including some cancers, diabetes and cardiovascular disease are epidemic, we find some employers offering healthier menus or better access to healthier foods, such as on-site farmers' markets. In developing and emerging economies, where hunger and malnutrition are still major problems, we find some employers offering free, well-balanced meals or access to safer street foods. Small-scale and other enterprises that are unable to support a company canteen can offer meal vouchers to their workers in many countries, to ensure that they have access to decent meals.

However, most of the time "workplace meal programmes are largely a missed opportunity. Work, instead of being accommodating, is frequently a hindrance to proper nutrition. Canteens, if they exist, routinely offer an unhealthy and unvaried selection. Vending machines are regularly stocked with unhealthy snacks", says the author of the new ILO study, Christopher Wanjek.

As an alternative to canteen meals, street foods can be bacteria laden. Workers sometimes have no time to eat, no place to eat or no money to purchase food. Often, they are given only around 30 minutes to secure a meal.

In developing countries, workplace meals like those offered to the workers at the San Pedro Diseños plant in Guatemala are a luxury. Some workers are unable to consume enough calories to perform the strenuous work expected of them. Mobile workers and day labourers are expected to fend for themselves.

Most large companies in industrialized countries have meal programmes as a matter of course. "There is the company canteen. The attitude is that if workers don't like the food there, then they are free to bring a packed lunch or buy a meal elsewhere. Many countries and companies still subscribe to the post-war notion of "fattening up" the workforce - the objective is to provide an abundance of food, but not necessarily healthy food", comments Mr. Wanjek.

"Hundreds of millions of workers face an undesirable eating arrangement every day. Many go hungry; many get sick, sooner or later. The result is a staggering blow to productivity and health", he adds.

Studies have shown that obese workers are twice as likely as fit workers to miss work. Obesity accounts for 2 to7 per cent of total health costs in industrialized countries. In the United States, one estimate of the total cost attributable to obesity amounted to US$ 99.2 billion in 1995.

Iron deficiency affects up to half the world's population, predominantly in the developing world. Low iron levels are associated with weakness, sluggishness and lack of coordination. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as much as 30 per cent impairment in physical work capacity and performance is reported in iron-deficient men and women. In South Asia, iron deficiency alone accounts for a loss of US$ 5 billion in productivity.

"The study establishes a clear link between good nutrition and high productivity. Decent food at work is not only socially important and economically viable but a profitable business practice too. For the government, employers and workers, proper nutrition at the workplace is a win-win-win proposition", concludes François Eyraud, Director of the ILO's Conditions of Work and Employment Programme.

Note 1 - Food at work, workplace solutions for malnutrition, obesity and chronic diseases, by Christopher Wanjek, International Labour Office, Geneva, 2005, ISBN 92-2-117015-2.