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Agricultural Waged Workers

Agricultural waged workers include those that work on farms and plantations and in primary processing facilities for food and fibre production. They are employed persons who receive some kind of “wage”, either cash and/or in-kind, and do not own or rent the land or equipment used in their work. They include permanent/full-time, seasonal, temporary/ casual, migrant, indigenous and piece-rate workers (those paid per unit of work) and as well as small farmers who often engage in paid agricultural employment to supplement their farm incomes.

Agricultural waged workers amount to 450 million, and represent 40 percent of the world's agricultural work force, and the number is increasing in most regions of the world. They are among the poorest and most food insecure groups: in many countries, more than 60 percent of them live in poverty. Agricultural work is also physically demanding and particularly hazardous while the risk of accidents is increased by poorly designed tools, poor working conditions, poor general health or too young age such as for child labourers, associated with inadequate training and safety systems. Agricultural workers run twice the risk of dying on the job compared with workers in other sectors: some 170,000 agricultural workers are killed each year and millions are injured. In addition, agricultural employment is often based on informal arrangements resulting in many agricultural waged workers not being protected under the legal frameworks in most countries and not covered by any form of social protection. Even where national regulations exist, effective enforcement is generally very poor.

Agricultural workers are often also poorly paid, with wages well below those earned by industrial or generally urban workers, thus continuing economic pressures for rural-to-urban migration. They do not form a homogeneous group and come with a wide range of contractual arrangements and employment relationships. The lack of homogeneity in the sector, the predominance of informality as well as the difficulties of organizing over large geographical areas are among the main causes for their low level of organization and unionization. Also, legal impediments to the right of agricultural workers to organize remain in a significant number of countries. This is, in turn, one of the determinants of their continued invisibility with policy-makers and institutions at micro and macro level: civil society groups working directly with agricultural waged workers continue to enjoy little support for strengthening their capacity and improving their livelihoods, if compared with farmers' groups.

In the future, the number of agricultural workers engaged in paid employment in rural areas will increase constantly. Given the growing demand for higher-value foods, commercial farming will probably becoming more important, and it can be expected that more labour will be needed in modern agro-industries and in the distribution and retail segments of food markets. A worrying trend is that workers are increasingly being employed as temporary or casual labour on short-term, daily or seasonal contracts with poorer pay and working conditions. They are often hired through or by contractors, thus creating a grey area around the employer's responsibilities which could lead to a disregard for labour legislation.

Women waged agriculture workers account for 20-30 percent of the waged workforce, rising to 40 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, and their numbers too are increasing in most regions (ILO, FAO, IUF, 2007). More often than men, women are likely to hold part-time, seasonal and/or low-paying jobs in the informal economy. However, differences exist across regions and sectors. For instance, women workers dominate many commercial value chains for high-value products such as fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers and livestock products, particularly in Africa and Latin America. In many cases, these modern chains provide better wages and working conditions for women than traditional agricultural employment.

Agricultural waged workers play already an important role in agricultural and rural development. Their contribution to sustainably increased food production and food security remains however virtually untapped. Their trade unions will need increased political, financial and technical support to play a greater role in the future and be empowered to strengthen links with producers’ organizations in the interests of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

There is a history of collaboration between FAO and agricultural waged workers' organizations, with highest points in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the past few years FAO has revived collaboration with the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) and its affiliates, focusing on institutional capacity building of agricultural workers' organizations and its affiliates. It started through the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD) Initiative and continued in the framework of the FAO-ILO Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).

In ILO's tripartite structure waged workers are represented through their organizations together with governments and employers' organizations. Within the ILO, the Bureau for Workers’ Activities (ACTRAV) department works directly with workers and their organizations including workers engaged in agriculture. In September 2003, the International Workers’ Symposium on Decent Work in Agriculture called on the ILO to “… strengthen collaboration with FAO on issues of mutual concern: (1) the cause and effect of global price declines in commodities and their impact on rural employment and small-scale producer livelihoods; (2) sustainable agriculture and rural development (SARD) and the involvement of trade unions and workers’ organizations in implementation of the SARD initiative; (3) food security; (4) capacity building and training of trade union and cooperative leaders in participatory agricultural policy formulation; and (5) awareness raising on health and safety issues with a special focus on HIV/AIDS prevention among rural youth.

Contacts

FAO Focal Point: Peter Wobst, ESW (Peter.Wobst@fao.org)

ILO Focal Point: Lene Olsen, ACTRAV (olsen@ilo.org)