Workers at two HelloFresh factories in California and Colorado have announced their intention to unionize. Vice reports that 1,300 workers have organized with UNITE HERE, a labor union representing workers in the hotel, food service, manufacturing, and other industries, and have filed a petition with the NLRB to authorize a vote by workers at a factory in Aurora, Colorado; workers at a factory in Richmond, California are also organizing. If they vote to unionize, it would be the first union in the meal kit industry.
Founded in Germany in 2011, HelloFresh has grown to be the largest meal kit provider in the US, providing boxes of individually measured ingredients and recipes to subscribers. The company markets its service as a balm for busy, white collar families who may not have time to meal plan or shop for “healthy” ingredients. It went public in 2017, and as of last year, it has over 6,000 employees; in a space that has quickly become overcrowded with similar services, it has continued to dominate.
NEW ORGANIZING ALERT— UNITE HERE (@unitehere) September 16, 2021
Workers @HelloFresh are organizing with UNITE HERE!
It's time for safety and respect at meal kit factories.
It's time for change.
It's time to join together in UNION.#HelloFresh pic.twitter.com/rHxPPTmpOj
A petition from HelloFresh workers to the company alleges that while it “profited from the pandemic, employees faced disrespect, a COVID-19 outbreak, and preventable injuries,” says. Workers told Vice that the pressure to keep production in the face of explosive growth has been detrimental to their wellbeing: Echoing a familiar refrain about the work conditions in Amazon’s notoriously grueling warehouses, Mary Williams, a pack line worker in Aurora, says she was discouraged from taking water breaks and timed for her bathroom breaks. She also says her assembly line shrunk from seven people to four, but that they were still expected to keep up the same level of production — 600 to 1,000 boxes a day. Other workers have also said they can’t afford rent on HelloFresh’s wages.
In a statement to Eater, UNITE HERE’s International President, D Taylor, says:
HelloFresh workers need a union and they are ready to fight for it. We expect the company to pledge to not get in the way of workers’ right to organize, a proud tradition in the United States at a time when a recent Gallup poll shows support of unions continues to climb. We all want a speedy recovery so workers and everyone can come back stronger in this country. We can’t achieve that if companies like HelloFresh don’t bring workers forward into the recovery, especially at the light-speed rate this sector of the economy is growing. HelloFresh consumers will be on the side of the workers. Consumers don’t want a box touting sustainability and fresh food to come with bad conditions for workers. After all we’ve been through during the pandemic, folks are sick and tired of companies taking advantage of the COVID crisis so a small handful can get richer. We’ve had enough of the pandemic profiteering.
The meal kit industry was basically rescued by the pandemic. By 2019, as Whitney Filloon wrote for Eater, the early 2010s boom of getting prepackaged ingredients and recipes sent to your door was going bust, as the newbies who needed these services to learn to cook, well, learned to cook. There was also the issue of spontaneity — after the sign-up discounts wore off, many people found they preferred making their own choices at the grocery store, or at least that now they had a few good recipes to choose from.
But in a world in which going to the grocery store could be a risky endeavor, meal kits like Blue Apron and HelloFresh seemed like a more necessary service. The petition notes that HelloFresh has generated record revenues from the pandemic — its global revenue doubled between 2019 and 2020 to $4.4 billion, and according to GroceryDive, this March, the company “reported $705 million in Q4 sales in the U.S., a 99 percent increase over the year-ago period, according to the company’s earnings report.” Its total active customer base rose by 92.9 percent over the past year, and has a projected revenue increase of 45-55 percent for 2021. HelloFresh CEO Dominik Richter said that because of this, “the company is accelerating the ramp-up of its production capacity.”
However, the second meal kit service boom did not address the longstanding issues with their workforce and supply chains, which had always relied on mass production on a tight timeline. In a 2016 report from Buzzfeed News about Blue Apron detailed a slew of OSHA violations as inexperienced workers were expected to produce thousands of boxes at absurd speeds, even when ingredients were missing. “It was crazy. You felt like you were running all the time. Your hair’s on fire and you can’t keep up,” said one employee. But in the classic Silicon Valley imperative to grow, the focus was always on keeping up with demand rather than ensuring workers could do their jobs sustainably and for good pay.
This push is part of a growing wave of worker activism across the food industry. If HelloFresh unionizes, it could mean workers at other companies Blue Apron and Sun Basket could follow suit, as the union has a chance to set better pay and safety standards in the industry. “It’s a cycle of low-paying work and having to work back-to-back jobs,” Williams told Vice. “We believe that having a union will really change things.” And as workers in other food and manufacturing companies like Amazon and Whole Foods continue to fight for their right to organize, HelloFresh could be one more workplace giving the movement momentum.
HelloFresh workers have said anti-union consultants have already visited their facilities, even though HelloFresh’s own code of ethics states “We support the principles established under the International Bill of Human Rights as well as the International Labor Organization.”
In a statement to Eater, a HelloFresh spokesperson said, “HelloFresh is deeply committed to providing a safe and respectful work environment and follows guidance provided by federal, state, and local law and any suggestion or implication to the contrary is untrue. We believe that the employment package we offer is competitive and attractive to our current and prospective workforce, and we’ve made significant investments in employee welfare and safety to foster a workplace that is welcoming, collegial, empowering, and safe. We also respect our employees’ right to choose to be represented by a union or not and have and will continue to comply with the National Labor Relations Act and all other federal, state, and local labor laws.”
Workers are asking for better worker safety provisions, especially in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak in Richmond, and actual living wages. “We know what happens when thousands of new jobs are created in new industries overnight with little regard to the dignity or the safety of work,” says the petition. “Today’s meal kit factory kitchens are yesterday’s garment factories.”
Update: September 17, 2021, 12:36 p.m.: This piece has been updated with a statement from HelloFresh.