Solution Cluster 4.2.2

Improve Governance of Labour Markets in Food Systems

Well-functioning agricultural labour markets are essential for poverty reduction for both smallholder farmers and waged agricultural workers. The idea is to improve governance of labour and institutions in food systems to guarantee the labour rights (as human rights) of workers.

Traditional labour market governance and institutional frameworks need to be updated and adapted to address labour market failures; respond to the changes in labour market structures and organisation of work; improve labour regulations, labour market access, inspection, monitoring of and compliance by private and public entities relying on food systems workers; and address other issues such as property inequality among rural households; rural-urban and foreign migration; seasonality; the geographical and political isolation of the rural poor; temporary or unsecure employment; child labour in agriculture; and workers’ participation in policy reforms.

An increased focus on agency of workers and on sustainability as core dimensions of food security and nutrition can facilitate framing the importance of labour rights in food systems.

About this Solution Cluster

Labour markets in food systems are often characterised by the labour monopsony (single buyer) of large corporations; rural poverty; property inequality among rural households; seasonality, precarity, and insecurity in employment; low income and indebtedness; high-risk/hazardous and backbreaking nature of agricultural labour; and the high demand for labour input in irrigated and unirrigated agriculture, fisheries and across the food chain for ensuring food security and competitiveness in international food trade. Agricultural workers are also commonly excluded from labour protections, especially those on minimum wages, social protection, and rights to collective bargaining and safe and healthy working conditions. Weak labour market governance and institutions and the lack of human rights monitoring exacerbate the precarity amongst agricultural workers who are unable to exercise their rights and therefore continue to work in inadequate labour conditions, risking their health, well-being, livelihoods, and even lives.

The present design of trade and capital flows allows for power balance in favour of large farms and corporations that can profit in this input-intensive sector (e.g. by depressing wages, entering into contract farming arrangements that are disadvantageous to smallholders, etc.) by taking advantage of specific socio-economic, political, and cultural factors (e.g. societal marginalisation, rural poverty, limited rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and the vulnerability of groups such as migrant workers) to structure the local labour market.

In addition, law enforcement, labour inspection, and compliance with international labour standards, among other issues, are currently lacking in the international food systems labour market. Many rural labour markets, for example, have been characterised by exclusion of smallholder farmer organisations and waged agricultural workers trade unions in creating and implementing the rules of governance. Governments – central and local – must ensure their active participation in governance. In many instances, agricultural labourers rarely work for a single employer so there need to be clear rules and procedures governing their employment.

Enhancing the role of the private sector is important. For example, in cases where multinational companies are sourcing their agricultural commodities from large-scale smallholder farmers or grower schemes that they have set up, there need to be transparent rules and procedures governing such schemes which can also help ensure fair prices for farmers and fair wages for their workers. Another trend in many agricultural labour markets is the growing use of contract labour. Many larger farms and plantations increasingly rely on labour gangs employed and supplied by labour contractors for services such as weeding, pesticide spraying, and harvesting. Labour market governance must ensure that workers, many of them migrants, supplied by contractors are not exploited and have decent conditions of work.

The scope and provision of labour market services needs to be improved, including the use of new digital technologies.

Improving the governance of labour markets can only be accomplished with policy and institutional reform that focuses on giving a voice to food systems workers and empowering them to collectively organise and exercise their human rights. A bottom-up approach is recommended to ensure that governance of food systems truly captures and responds to the diverse interests and concerns of workers in food systems. To this effect, the UNFSS should facilitate working to strengthen labour market governance and institutions in association with relevant national ministries, parliamentarians, and international agencies. Where appropriate, labour laws governing the agricultural/food sectors should be modernised, including inclusion of clauses on determining the employment relationship and labour markets, to include access for workers and farmers to employment advisory services. In addition, labour market governance should include increased labour market access through decent employment opportunities (regulated by labour laws) and improved earnings including through minimum wages, especially for vulnerable groups including women; elimination of child labour in agriculture; fair recruitment and regulation of labour contractors and conditions of employment to prevent workers’ exploitation; inclusion of workers in policy reform processes; and empowering workers by supporting the establishment, growth, and functioning of workers’ organisations and guaranteeing the rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining of all workers. Policies towards strengthening local economies would also contribute to improving labour market governance by reducing the distance (and associated transaction costs) between producers and consumers, strengthening local markets, and promoting local-level job creation. They could also contribute to improving opportunities for women and addressing discrimination against marginalised groups.

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Game Changing Propositions in this Solution Cluster