Work in the agriculture industry and the excessive disparities of our century

May 18, 2018

At least a billion people today are employed in agriculture. For about half of them, food production is a true job: 450 million people who represent the heart of the global food system. However, this is still one of the most dangerous and least protected industries in the world, particularly in developing countries. Workers have to deal with difficult conditions on a daily basis, in difficult climates and continuously exposed to dangerous chemicals. These workers are often invisible to politicians, rural development agencies or inter-governmental organizations.

Farmers, often forgotten
As the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states, "food security exists when all people, at all times, have sufficient physical, social and economic access to food", and this should be "sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences". Sustainable agriculture exists when all three of its pillars are satisfied: the economic, social and environmental ones. However, agriculture and forestry in particular, are the among the industries with the highest share of work accidents and hazardous working conditions affecting the health of workers. Sheila Wertz-Kanounnikoff, Senior forestry officer at the FAO's forestry department, writes that “the high incidence of work-related accidents in agriculture can be a serious threat to livelihood, particularly for the most vulnerable families. Agricultural workers who face dangerous conditions tend to be less productive and they put their health at risk, thus deepening their poverty". She underlines how it is "in the interest of the employers and employees to ensure that the health and safety procedures are followed, and that work is organized keeping the health hazards in mind ".

The importance of trade unions
The International Labor Organization created an international program devoted to improving every day work conditions in agriculture. In its twenty years of activity, the Wind (Work improvement in neighborhood development) program carried out dozens of projects in over 20 countries across the globe, supplying simple and practical solutions, easily adoptable even with locally available materials: manuals and courses to learn about warehousing and moving materials, improving work environments, increasing the use of safety tools.
According to FAO, trade unions play an essential role in the achievement of all aspect of sustainable agricultural crops, to this day. Technical abilities, negotiating skills, political engagement can bring about positive change. There are many examples in the world, where organized workers were able to improve their working conditions, from South America to South East Asia. Associations such as Via Campesina, set up in 1993, have grown globally and today encompass nearly 150 local organizations in 70 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and America, representing nearly 200 farmers, small producers, both migrants and locals.

Working conditions and the SDGs
Four of the Sustainable Development Goals include the improvement of workers' conditions. Starting with Goal 8, which includes supporting economic growth and the creation of dignified jobs: an economic growth entailing greater efficiency in consumption and resources. Goal 5, aiming for gender equity; goals 10 and goals 16, that together push for safer workplaces, adequate social policies and transparent institutions. 2030 is close, and ensuring that agriculture becomes a model for the sustainable development of the entire society is going to require an enormous effort.