Solution Cluster 4.2.1

Institutionalise and Strengthen Labour and Human Rights Regulations by Placing People’s Dignity and Rights at the Centre

Addressing the deprivation and denial of human and labour rights is a central component of promoting equality and advancing the livelihood of workers in food systems. It involves institutionalising rights at the transnational and international level, including ratification of ILO and UN human rights conventions by states and their effective implementation as well as inter-state and inter-organisational coordination. The effective enforcement at the national and local levels should ensure that food system workers are not excluded from rights and labour protection; prioritising marginalised categories of workers such as migrant (foreign) workers, casual or daily workers, who may not be effectively protected under relevant legislation even when it exists, and particular occupational sectors of the food system, such as fisheries, primary agricultural production, and food processing, which are often among the most hazardous, unprotected, and poorly remunerated; and ensuring the demands of the most excluded and exploited are centred. This solution cluster also focuses on promoting decent work as one of the main ways to eliminate child labour, over 70 percent of which is found in agriculture. Also, all solutions under this cluster will be gender and age-sensitive, giving special attention to women and youth due to their specific challenges and needs.

About this Solution Cluster

The UN food security framework, and the trade and labour policy which stems from it, has long been lacking robust regulations to protect the rights, livelihoods, and dignity of workers in the agri-food sector. Mr. Michael Fakhri, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, in his first report to the UN General Assembly, acknowledged that the trade regime fails to adequately acknowledge and uphold the human rights of marginalised food workers (including agricultural workers). The conception of food workers includes wage workers, as their labour is essential to food production. The vast majority of food production is made possible through labourers who have nominal wages and little to no legal protections; meanwhile, wealth and power are centralised in a small number of private entities. The gap created by the lack of regulations, policies and enforcement mechanisms has not only reduced the visibility of labourers in the trade regime but has also further marginalised food workers who are vulnerable to human rights abuses.

The Working Group on Global Food Governance of the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM) for relations with the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) reports that “the absence of decent work for the vast majority of those around the world working in agriculture” has been at the heart of the poverty and inequality crisis. Food system sectors are often excluded from human and labour rights that are provided to other workers. For example, the agricultural sector, even in countries that have ratified labour and human rights treaties, is often exempt from overtime wages, sick days, and social welfare. Workers in the food-processing industry, such as in meatpacking, suffer from poor enforcement of labour and human rights standards. Across all food system sectors, labour is segmented along racial/ethnic and gender lines, with no effective anti-discrimination protections because these groups are often socially, politically, and economically exploited. Child labour is widely prevalent in food systems. The right to life and health of workers is made precarious because of weak or non-existent health and safety regulations in food systems. Sectors such as fisheries which employ large numbers of migrant (foreign) labour require transnational governance where all states across the production and extraction chain need to implement and enforce rights regulations so that there is no race to the bottom. Workers are left without agency, as there is no right to organise and bargain collectively without fear of reprisal and loss of livelihood, and often, loss of lives. This has been acknowledged by peoples’ movements across the globe, international organisations, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, as well as state parties, evidenced by several best practices that are ongoing, as described under each solution.

The cluster includes six focus areas, the first of which involves ratification and effective enforcement of human rights and labour standards in food systems. Upholding and protecting labour rights in the agri-food sector, through the ratification and effective implementation of relevant ILO international labour standards and human rights treaties, in addition to being an important objective, is key to facilitating agricultural growth and inclusive food systems, with potential significant multiplier effects on other sectors. The solution also focuses on strengthening compliance and enforcement systems through better human rights monitoring, labour administration, and labour inspection systems, as well as partnerships and multi-stakeholder monitoring along agri-food system value chains; harnessing the labour standards’ contribution to voluntary instruments relevant to agriculture and rural development, especially in contexts where labour laws do not always protect rural workers, such as the standards endorsed by the CFS and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), improving national and cross-border social dialogue; promoting policy coherence; strengthening international partnerships and scaling up the implementation of development cooperation programmes on the promotion of the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda in agriculture and related sectors; and improving enterprises’ access to ILO resources and guidance on international labour standards.

The second goal of the cluster is to bring specific attention to the recognition and promotion of occupational safety and health in food systems as a fundamental labour and human right. In terms of fatalities, injuries, and occupational disease, agriculture – along with capture fishing – is acknowledged as one of the three most dangerous occupations. An estimated 170,000 farmers and agricultural workers in crop, livestock, and aquacultural production are killed at work each year. The solution obligates all UN organisations, international agencies, and states to incorporate occupational safety and health as a fundamental labour and human right in their founding governance charters, constitutions, legislative frameworks, and rules, and to develop and implement policies, programmes, and activities to improve safety and health in food systems workplaces. It requires states to establish and maintain well-functioning institutions of labour inspection as a key mechanism for ensuring the effective enforcement of labour legislation and the protection of workers, and for promoting productivity at work. In addition, it obligates businesses across the food systems to guarantee the safety and health of their workers.

The cluster also addresses categories of workers, who face particularly significant barriers in exercising their rights or are subject to high degrees of exploitation, and specific sectors that are often characterised by significant decent work deficits. One solution focuses on migrant (foreign) workers in food systems. Migration is a reality in the food sector in most countries, given the seasonality and labour intensiveness in agriculture and the mass production mechanisms in food systems that push labour wages down. This results in millions of workers (including women, subsistence producers, and Indigenous Peoples) crossing borders to work in other countries to earn their livelihoods. While migrant workers contribute significantly to the growth of the agricultural and other food system sectors, they are also especially vulnerable to poor labour regulations, to lack of opportunities, recognition, and social protection, to trafficking, xenophobia, and racism, and – especially for migrant women workers – to gender violence and discriminatory treatment. The first step to address the challenge of access to justice for migrant (foreign) food workers is to increase access to rights and entitlements across the transnational jurisdictional space. Since rights and entitlements are often mediated by citizenship status and cannot be meaningfully accessed by those with foreign status, the solution includes greater access to open work permits and permanent residency for migrant (foreign) workers in agriculture and along the food chain. Secondly, anti-racism and anti-discrimination, with special protections for migrant workers, must be mainstreamed across all food sector policies to ensure equitable opportunity and equal treatment in employment and occupation, without discrimination based on race, colour, s*x, religion, political opinion, national extraction, or social origin. Third, special programmes must be initiated to provide labour rights and social protection support to the workers, pre- and post- migration, in their home countries. Lastly, collective organisations must be strengthened and reimagined for migrant workers. When this is accomplished, labour, and other human rights protections will be strengthened, and food security overall will be achieved, taking into account the most marginalised persons in the food sector, including subsistence producers, women, indigenous peoples, and socially and culturally racialised persons.

Additionally, the cluster has emphasised the importance of recognition of the high degree of exploitative working and living conditions on board fishing vessels and growing cooperation on improving labour standards in fishing between international agencies such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), FAO, and ILO; national fisheries agencies; national fisheries (employers) organisations; and trade unions representing fishers. As many women as men are employed in the fisheries sector, but women’s role in fisheries has remained buried in the data-poor sub-sectors of part-time employment and post-harvest activities. Fishers’ fatality and injury rates are much higher than national averages for all workers in many countries. The solution proposed is the systematic scale out of systems of Flag State inspection and Port State inspection of working and living conditions on board fishing vessels, as are laid down in the ILO Work in Fishing Convention, No. 188 (2007) and supplemented by sets of ILO Guidelines on Flag State inspection and Port State control, respectively. Establishing and resourcing inspection systems to ensure decent working and living conditions for fishers will also contribute to addressing other issues such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, forced labour and human trafficking, and child labour. The IMO, ILO, and FAO have already created legally binding international fisheries instruments for responsible fisheries, the safety of fishing vessels and fishers, and decent working and living conditions in fisheries. This cluster intends to continue to promote this framework to encourage increased ratification to ensure improved safety, working, and living conditions and reduced accidents and fatalities in the sector.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the decent work deficits faced by food processing workers in many countries. Another solution in this cluster therefore seeks to follow an integrated decent work approach in the food processing sector to ensure quality jobs, social protection, and respect for rights at work within the sector’s large workforce, which comprises a significant number of women and migrant workers. Ensuring decent work for workers in food processing will contribute to sustainable, inclusive economic growth, poverty reduction, food security, and nutrition. For instance, in 2020, Germany introduced a law prohibiting subcontracting of workers for core businesses in meat processing, establishing stricter regulations on wages, overtime pay, and other aspects, and addressing the systemic decent work deficits prevalent in the sector. An integrated decent work approach, tailored to the global, country, and enterprise levels, would comprise of (i) effective protection of rights at work and enforcement of labour standards, (ii) strengthened capacity of institutions to improve skills, productivity, access to markets, information and technology, etc., (iii) improved social protection coverage, and (iv) strengthened capacity of workers’ and employers’ organisation to meaningfully participate in social dialogue to ensure stable labour relations and boost productivity and quality of work life. The ILO, with support from, and in collaboration with development cooperation partners, can support its constituents – governments, employers, and workers’ organisations – in identifying challenges and opportunities for the promotion of decent work in food processing segments of specific food supply chains. This would entail collecting and analysing data on employment and labour issues in selected supply chains and outlining areas where progress is needed; developing strategies/action plans to address decent work challenges; and bringing the strategies to life through targeted programmes. The overall objective of such programmes is to improve workers’ access to rights and quality jobs as a means to improve livelihoods, incomes, and food security, and to support enterprises in implementing core and other relevant international labour standards and national labour laws aimed at improving both compliance and competitiveness in their supply chains.

Lastly, the cluster aims to eliminate child labour and promoting youth employment. The FSS can help the international campaign to eliminate child labour, over 70 per cent of which is found in agriculture, and to help farmers, in cooperation with their workers, to transform hazardous child labour into decent youth employment in agriculture for 14/15- to 17-year-olds, and radically improving health and safety conditions on agricultural undertakings, farms, and plantations.

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