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Six solutions to lifting the world's farm workers out of poverty

Agriculture will not be viable while the vast majority of its workforce lives in poverty. Innovative changes can break the cycle of poverty.

By Catherine WardNourishing the Planet / September 5, 2012

A farm worker uses a walk-behind tractor in a field in Kyaiklat, a town in Myanmar. A billion people worldwide work in agriculture but in many countries farm workers endure poverty, lack of education, and harsh, dangerous working conditions.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters/File

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Agriculture employs more than one billion people worldwide – about 34 percent of global workers – making it the second-largest source of employment globally.

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Yet agricultural workers remain one of the most marginalized, oppressed, and exploited groups in the world. According to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Labor Organization (ILO), and International Union of Food, Agriculture, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco, and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), the global agricultural workforce is “among the most socially vulnerable; the least organized into trade unions; employed under the poorest health, safety, and environmental conditions; and is the least likely to have access to effective forms of social security and protection.”

In many countries, up to 60 percent of agricultural workers live in poverty and less than 20 percent have access to basic social security, according to the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD) initiative. The agricultural sector also has the largest numbers of child workers—nearly 130 million children between the ages of 5 and 17.

Innovations to lift the world’s agricultural workers out of poverty can simultaneously promote sustainable agriculture and international development. Today, Nourishing the Planet offers six solutions to help lift the world’s agricultural workers out of poverty:

1) Support organized labor. Labor unions play an important role in minimizing exploitation among agricultural workers by advocating for higher wages, improved living conditions, and safer work environments. Agricultural workers are often one of the most disempowered groups within societies, and in many countries they lack access to basic health care, education, and participation in government. Unions advocate for worker rights and fight to stop the exploitation of children.

In Ghana, 70 percent of the country’s 23 million inhabitants are involved in the agricultural sector. The General Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU) is the largest union in Ghana and represents many marginalized agricultural groups. The union supports rural communities by providing support in training, learning new skills, and microcredit. GAWU is currently investing in a youth development center, and organizes training workshops for union members. The union has campaigned for better farm wages, so that families don’t have to send their children to work in the agricultural sector.

By supporting community-based organizations, such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), consumers in the United States can help ensure that farmworkers' rights are recognized and enforced. The CIW is a coalition of farmworkers working low-wage jobs in the state of Florida and is responsible for advocating farmworker rights via hunger strikes, boycotts, interfaith prayer vigils, rallies, and marches. The CIW is organizing a Labor Day Weekend of Action and is calling on the public to actively protest Publix in your state.

2) Include women in agricultural development. Innovative technology solutions can help disadvantaged agricultural workers ease their work burdens and increase productivity. Women make up over 40 percent of the global agricultural workforce, yet are one of the most vulnerable groups among these workers. Female agricultural laborers form an invisible workforce, as they often work on the fringes of the formal economy assisting their husbands with manual labor or producing food to feed their families as opposed to food for sale.

In India there are more than 258 million people working in the agricultural sector, and up to 70 percent of rural women are engaged in the agricultural workforce. There have been some noteworthy success stories in India around the creation of innovative technology solutions for agricultural workers. An Indian midwife, Arkhiben Vankar, became known as the pesticide lady when she developed an herbal pesticide that was efficient, low-cost, and toxin-free. This innovation provided Indian women engaged in agricultural work with an alternative to harmful chemical pesticides.

Another technological innovation was designed by Subharani Kurian, who developed a bicycle-operated duplex pump to draw up ground water. The innovation assists women based on the idea that leg muscles are more powerful than hand muscles, making a bicycle pump more effective to operate.

Lack of communication, education, and access to technology among women, particularly in developing countries, has often prevented women from receiving the same benefits and opportunities as men in the agricultural sector. For the last 50 years, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has helped to bring scientific knowledge and technology to poor agricultural workers in developing countries through initiatives like the Collaborative Research Support Programs (CRSPs). According to USAID, “by empowering women farmers with the same access to land, new technologies, and capital as men, we can increase crop yields by as much as 30 percent and feed an additional 150 million people”.

3) Support worker advocacy organizations. Research can be a useful tool to examine risks associated with the agricultural industry and how to mitigate them in the future, thus ensuring that vulnerable workers do not risk losing their livelihoods. Agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries to work in due to hazardous machinery, livestock, extreme weather conditions, dehydration, and exposure to pesticides.

In China there are an estimated 225 million agricultural workers, but farms are increasingly worked by the youngest and oldest residents of rural communities, as many middle-aged wage workers seek employment in cities. Injuries are abundant due to use of heavy machinery and result in millions of deaths and disabilities among farmworkers each year. A collaborative research project  between the Colorado Injury Control Research Center, the Center for Injury Research and Policy at The Ohio State University, and the Tongji Injury Control Research Center was undertaken between Chinese and American researchers to find solutions to reduce agriculturally related injuries in China. The program has trained more than 80 researchers, published studies on agricultural injuries, and opened a center for injury prevention in China. The project aims to provide insights on how to train agricultural workers to safely handle new machinery to avoid future injuries and deaths.

Consumers can make a positive contribution toward the health care of farmworkers in the United States through nonprofit organizations such as the National Center for Farmworker Health (NCFH). The organization is dedicated to improving worker health in the United States by providing services like resources for migrants, training programs, and education and policy analysis. The public can get involved through NCFH’s Gift of Health program, which accepts donations that are invested in promoting the health of America’s farmworkers.

4) Get involved and be aware—locally and globally. Local initiatives that invest in the well-being of vulnerable communities can effectively help change the conditions of agricultural workers. Farmworkers are often described as hidden people, usually subjected to impoverished living conditions, with limited access to basic services like water and electricity.

South Africa’s wine and fruit industry alone generates $3 billion a year for the South African economy. Yet, according to a Human Rights Watch report, farmworkers benefit very little from the profits, and are often forced to live in substandard housing. Solms-Delta is an example of a South African wine estate that has established its own initiative, the Wijn de Caap Trust, to break the cycle of poverty among farmworkers on the Solms-Delta estate. The trust receives 33 percent of profits from the estate’s wine sales, which aims to improve the lives of farmworkers by providing quality housing, investing in education facilities for children, and providing medical care to families.

Consumers in the United States can also become directly involved in community farming enterprises by volunteering or working at local farmers’ markets, participating in volunteer days at nearby farms, or even apprenticing on a farm for a season. Visit https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/internships/ to learn more about on-farm opportunities in the United States and Canada.

5) Promote universal education. Education can be used from a grass-roots level to dispel ignorance and empower local communities. Agricultural workers often migrate in search of seasonal or temporary work and can be unaware of their rights due to poor education, isolation within rural areas, and fragmented organization. Education programs can also help inform consumers on ethical considerations of food production and educate young leaders on policy formulation and advocacy.

Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) is an innovative nonprofit organization that uses popular education to raise awareness of issues around farmworker conditions in local US communities. SAF works with farmworkers, students, and advocates alike, and has provided support to over 80,000 farmworkers to gain access to health, legal, and education facilities.

6) Vote with your dollar. Consumers can choose products produced in environmentally friendly and socially responsible ways. By purchasing products that are not linked to the exploitation of agricultural laborers, they send the message to agricultural employers that consumers do not support abusive labor conditions and that they are willing to pay an often-higher price for ethically produced goods. This helps ensure that workers are paid fairly and do not work under poor conditions.

Fair Trade USA is an international movement that allows customers to buy products from all over the world that support poverty-reduction projects, relieve exploitation, and endorse environmental sustainability. The Fair Trade standards enable agricultural workers to work in safe and inclusive environments, follow economic trade contracts with fair pricing, improve their own living conditions, and avoid child labor. There is growing demand from consumers for socially responsible food production; North America will soon implement its own Food Justice label. This label will also help lift American workers out of poverty by guaranteeing fair wages, adequate living conditions, and reasonable contracts.

Agriculture will not be viable while the vast majority of its workforce lives in poverty around the world, and innovative measures to break this cycle of poverty, along with your contributions, are crucial to fostering a healthier food system.

Catherine Ward is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project. To purchase "State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet" please click HERE.

This article first appeared at Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

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