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October 2003, Volume 9, Number 4

ILO: Global Farm Worker Issues

About 40 percent of the world's three-billion strong labor force, some 1.2 billion workers, are employed in agriculture as self-employed farmers, unpaid family workers and hired workers. The ILO puts the number of "waged" or hired workers at 450 million, 38 percent of all persons employed in agriculture and equivalent to the entire labor force of the high-income countries. The ILO includes as waged workers those who receive in-kind payments, and notes that some workers have several statuses, such as a person who is a farmer at some times of the year and hired worker at others.

An ILO survey of conditions of wage workers in agriculture concluded that a series of vicious circles are lowering wages and protections for hired farm workers and encouraging rural-urban migration and international migration. The ILO is a standards-setting organization that aims to protect workers by encouraging countries to embrace the four pillars of "decent work," that is, fundamental rights at work such as collective bargaining, adequate income in relation to basic socioeconomic needs, social protection from unemployment and sickness or injury, and social dialogue so that workers organizations and employers can participate in decisions affecting each country's economic and labor trajectories.

Farm work is often associated with violations of core ILO labor standards. For example, 70 percent of the world's child workers- some 80 million five- to 14-year olds-- are employed in agriculture. Over 90 percent of hired farm workers do not have their generally lower-than-average work place rights enforced by labor inspectors, and fewer than 10 percent of the world's hired farm workers belong to unions. In virtually all countries, hired farm workers are near the bottom of the earnings ladder.

Plantations to Contractors. The ILO reported that globalization, privatization, and FDI have increased the power of the multinationals who sell chemicals and other farm inputs to farmers as well as the power of the multinationals who market and trade farm commodities. The fact that fewer and larger firms have come to dominate input and output markets contributed to rising input costs and declining prices for many commodities produced in developing countries, including bananas, cocoa, coffee and sugar. Declining commodity prices, prompted in part by loss of preferential import arrangements as well as by subsidies to farmers in industrial countries that exceed $300 billion a year, put downward pressure on farm wages and incomes in developing countries, increasing poverty and emigration pressures in agricultural areas.

Many of the world's hired farm workers are employed on plantations, some owned by multinationals, that provide housing and wages according to the terms of collective bargaining agreements. Plantation workers in "breakfast commodities" such as banana, coffee and sugar are sometimes among their countries' working elite. However, some multinational producers of breakfast commodities have replaced year-round workers who had housing, schools and other amenities on the plantation with women hired seasonally and offered few or no benefits.

The switch from plantations hiring workers year-round and housing them and their families to obtaining seasonal workers when needed via contractors is highlighted in Malaysia, where many of the workers hired to knock oil palm nuts off of trees are migrants provided by labor contractors. Some 181,000 foreigners were legally registered as plantation employees in 2002, but only 12 percent belonged to unions.

In the new export crops, such as flowers in Tanzania, Kenya and Colombia, seasonal workers, often women, have dominated the hired work force from the beginning, as these new factories in the fields seek the lowest-cost labor available. Similarly, most of the workers employed in Chile's export-oriented fruit industry are women employed seasonally. Seasonal workers are those most likely to be brought to farms by farm labor contractors, completing the vicious circle as FLCs are often linked with abuses of workers. In countries that require benefits for year-round workers, many workers are "artificially" made seasonal workers by periodic layoffs, so that they can be employed almost year-round but not incur employer-paid benefit costs.

In most developing countries, the wages and incomes of agricultural workers are below urban wages, prompting rural-urban and international migration. However, the very poor are often trapped in rural areas, working seasonally in commercial agriculture. There are sharp contrasts between countries in the status of hired farm workers by commodity and country. For example, in the Philippines, 95 percent of sugar cane workers were reported to be poor, while only 20 percent of tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka were reported to be poor.

Four Fundamental Work Rights. The restructuring of agriculture that has resulted in displacement of year-round workers on plantations has been accompanied by complaints of violations of the four fundamental ILO rights: the right to join unions and bargain collectively, elimination of forced labor, ending child labor, and reducing discrimination in employment. Many established farm worker unions complain of violations of the right to join unions and bargain collectively, especially unions in Central America and Colombia protesting changes on coffee and banana plantations. Fifty-five percent of the union complaints in the 1990s of violations of ILO core standards were from the Americas, and many were directed at governments that assisted, for example, banana plantations to expel workers.

Unions find it hard to organize and represent farm workers effectively because many live on employer-owned property, and union organizers often have no clear legal right to enter the property to talk to workers. Even if some farm workers have collective bargaining rights, others may be excluded, and employers may restructure work to favor the employment of excluded workers. For these reasons, collective bargaining in agriculture "does not appear to be a significant feature in the agriculture sector of many countries" and is shrinking as unions find it very hard to make the adjustment from representing permanent plantation workers to organizing seasonal workers.

The ILO devotes special attention to contractors, who are increasing their share of seasonal job placements in many countries' farm labor markets, and decries the abusive labor practices often associated with FLCs. There is a vicious circle at work in trying to regulate contractors: they often hire the most vulnerable workers least aware of their rights, and the contractors are often under extreme competitive pressure to keep wages low. Recommended reforms include written contracts between contractors and employers as well as between contractors and workers. Finally, countries could better protect their most vulnerable farm workers if they protected them under labor laws and hired more labor law inspectors.

The second pillar of decent work is the elimination of forced labor. Bonded labor is often associated with rural India, where debts incurred for, for instance, medical emergencies or weddings can be passed from generation to generation. India is the world's largest producer of tea, 750 million kg a year, and tea production in India employs over a million permanent workers, mostly women. However, in tea production, there is a tendency to substitute seasonal for year-round workers; seasonal workers are defined as those employed for less than 183 days a year.

Forced labor has been found in Brazil, where labor contractors tour poor areas offering work at high wages in remote Amazon areas. When the workers arrive at their destination, they are in debt for transportation, and must pay for housing and food at rates so that it becomes difficult to repay the debt. There are an estimated 200,000 migrants employed under forced labor conditions in Brazil.

Forced labor has been associated with smuggling and trafficking in industrial countries, as migrants go into debt in order to repay the cost of being smuggled into the country. Some of the worse trafficking cases in the US in the 1990s were associated with farm workers, as in Florida, where brothers Ramiro and Juan Ramos were sentenced to 10 and 12 years in prison in 2002 for holding farm workers behind barbed wire, and using force to keep them working.

The workers were employed, inter alia, in orange groves owned by Lykes Brothers, which controls two-thirds of the farm land in Glades county. When asked why they did not hire orange pickers directly, Lykes said: "It is too expensive. We find it is a lot more efficient to use a contractor to provide the labor." At the Ramos brothers' sentencing, U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore said: "others at another level in this system of fruit-picking, at a higher level ... are complicit... They rely on migrant workers, and they create a legal fiction or corporation that insulates them between them and the workers themselves so that they can be relieved of any liability for the hiring of illegal immigrants. And yet they stand to benefit the most."

ILO Convention 184 specifies 18 as the minimum age for employment in agriculture in dangerous jobs and 16 for other farm jobs. There were an estimated 352 million children ages five to 17 employed sometime in 2000, including 186 million under 16. On plantations, it has been common for children to work alongside their parents, so that children on Indian tea plantations normally helped their mothers until age 12, and then work five hours instead of eight for wages at half the adult rate until 16. Some 50,000 children were registered among the 670,000 workers employed on Assam tea plantations in India in 1991.

The fourth fundamental right is no discrimination in employment. The ILO emphasized that men are often paid more than women in agriculture or, more often, men dominate in year-round jobs covered by labor laws while women dominate in seasonal jobs that are excluded from labor laws. Indigenous or tribal farm workers as well as children often receive lower-than-standard wages.

Social Protection and Dialogue. The ILO defines decent work as jobs in which fundamental rights are respected and in which workers have sufficient incomes to live adequately, are covered by social protection programs, and can participate in social dialogue about the trajectory of the economy via workers organizations with employers and governments. Most social protection programs provide benefits to workers who are injured at work, and provide income when workers are jobless or retired. Many developing countries do not provide social protection benefits to farm workers or, when there are social protection benefits, farm workers are often excluded from coverage. Even if covered, the benefits that should be available are sometimes not provided because employer violations of contribution laws are tolerated. For example, it is said that no tea plantation in Assam or West Bengal is in full compliance with the Indian Plantation Labour Act of 1951.

In many cases, informal hiring means there is no written record of employment and wages to establish eligibility for social protection services. However, UATRE, (Union Argentina de Trabajadores Rurales y Estibadores), which says there may be 1.2 million unregistered agricultural workers in Argentina, succeeded in getting a National Registry of Agricultural Workers and Employers (RENATRE) established in March 2003. Its aim is to get the 180,000 foreign workers employed in Argentina agriculture registered and thus eligible for benefits- most of these migrants are Bolivians employed on tobacco and onion farms.

The ILO noted that horticulture makes extensive use of chemicals and hires large numbers of women, raising health concerns that include birth defects. The ILO approved Convention 184 on Safety and Health in Agriculture in 2001, which calls for employers to develop safety programs and for farm workers to be "informed and consulted on safety and health matters including risks from new technologies...[184 says that workers have the right to] remove themselves from danger resulting from their work activity" without employer retaliation. Convention 184, which entered into force September 20, 2003, also deals with housing, calling on countries to require employers to provide free housing for year-round and seasonal workers on plantations and commercial farms.

The ILO's fourth pillar of decent work, social dialogue, envisions employer and worker organizations meeting with governments to agree on development strategies that ensure fundamental rights at work as well as better incomes and social protections for farm workers. However, with fewer than 10 percent of the world's hired farm workers represented by unions, and unions finding it very hard to organize the fast-growing female segment of the seasonal farm work force, worker organizations are often weak or non-existent. The worker organizations that do exist are often on the defensive, fighting to retain the wages and benefits they have won as state-owned or foreign-owned plantations are restructured.

There is some hope that corporate social responsibility can reverse the vicious circle leaving many of the world's farm workers at the bottom of country job ladders. The most common way to put pressure on multinationals is to threaten consumer boycotts of their products. One result is the Chiquita Code of Conduct, which applies to workers on company-owned farms in Central America and Colombia, where 56 percent of the bananas marketed by Chiquita are grown, and includes references to ILO core conventions. However, Chiquita also markets bananas from Ecuador, the world's largest banana exporter and a country in which banana workers' wages are very low.

The major international union confederation, the International Union Of Food, Agriculture, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco And Allied Workers' Associations (IUF/UITA/IUL), supports corporate responsibility statements and believes they can improve workers' lives The IUF, which represents 336 trade unions in 120 countries with 12 million members, maintains a list of multinationals on its web sites to report their latest activities, and a list of commodities that report the latest labor-related developments from bananas to sugar. US affiliates include the UFCW, but not the UFW or Teamsters. The world's largest farm worker union is said to be the Brazilian union Contag, with 15 million members who include small farmers.

Countries and Commodities. The ILO highlighted changes in particular countries and commodities. Moldova, the first ex-USSR country to join the WTO, saw the number of wage workers in agriculture fall from 516,000 in 1996 to 166,000 in 2001- farm wages fell from 70 to 60 percent of average wages over this period.

Global sugar production almost doubled in the past 30 years to 136 million tons. In many countries, sugar has been produced by state-owned firms whose primary purpose was not economic efficiency. Sugar is a major employer in many countries. For example, Maharashtra India has an estimated one million cane cutters to supply cane to 150 sugar mills, and a January 2003 agreement provides basic benefits if workers are killed or injured during the harvest.

As sugar mills were privatized in the 1990s, there was considerable displacement of labor. Many sugar mills in developing countries have switched to "outgrowers" or "independent growers" to raise their cane, which eliminates their need to hire often well-paid workers. Sugar production shaped the development of many African and Latin American countries, as slaves were transported across the Atlantic to produce sugar from cane for Europe. Africa today produces about seven percent of the world's sugar, half as much as Europe, but exports some of its production under preferential trade agreements to the European Union; Africa also imports sugar, and accounts for 14 percent of global sugar imports. Mauritius is the largest sugar exporter under the EU Sugar Protocol, and has over 90 percent of its arable land planted in sugar cane.

Some 40 million workers are employed worldwide to grow and process six million tons of tobacco leaves a year, with 70 percent of the production in six countries: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, US, and Zimbabwe. Three firms account for most cigarette production: China National Tobacco, 30 percent; Philip Morris, 17 percent; and British-American Tobacco, 16 percent.

Pigott, Marilyn. 2003. Decent Work in Agriculture. ILO ACTRAV, Geneva. September.

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