Contribution to the ILO International Women’s Day Panel: Empower Rural Women - End Hunger and Poverty by Ms. Sue Longley, Coordinator Global Agriculture, the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF)

Statement | Geneva | 08 March 2012

Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters from the Workers’ Group, Director General, I work for the IUF which is the global trade union representing workers throughout the food chain - many millions of them in rural areas.

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the ILO and the UN on the theme that has been chosen to mark this year’s International Women’s Day.

“Empower rural women – end hunger and poverty” sums up very well the politics of International Women’s day, the struggle for equality, the battle against the inequalities that keep millions of women in poverty and hunger.

As we meet here in Geneva, the UN’s 56th Commission on the Status of Women is drawing to a close in New York. The priority theme being addressed at that meeting is also the empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development and current challenges. A group of my colleagues - women from trade unions around the world - is at the Commission, lobbying hard to make sure that decent work and employment issues are included in the agreed conclusions of the meeting.

They will put on record that the global trade union movement recognizes the contribution of women to growing, processing and preparing food; that we in particular recognize the contribution of women on family farms to ensuring global food security, and welcome measures to ensure that women have access and ownership of land, have access to credits, to markets, to technology, to all measures that will empower them and assist in eradicating poverty and hunger. They will call for the UNCSW 2012 to elaborate a strong, comprehensive programme to ensure rural women have access to land and related resources.

They will however add that addressing only the needs of women as farmers and entrepreneurs would be addressing only half of the picture. They will call for the situation of rural women workers to be specifically addressed.

Rural women workers are all too frequently, in my experience, ignored by researchers, academics, policy makers and legislators

And it is these women that I want to talk about today, in particular women working in agriculture.

You will, I am sure, be aware that while the share of agriculture in total global employment is declining it still remains a significant employment sector. In 1991, 45.2 per cent of total employment was in agriculture but by 2007, this share had fallen to 34.9 per cent. And as the DG just said, women make up 43 per cent of the agricultural workforce.

Women are employed in all agricultural sectors. They work as day labourers, as seasonal workers, as migrant workers, on plantations and in pack-houses, in glasshouses and cold store, although the percentage of the workforce that they constitute varies and job classifications are often gender defined. In the tea sector which globally employs millions of workers, women are the largest part of the tea plucking workforce. In the banana industry they are mainly confined to pack houses while women’s role in sugar cane harvesting varies enormously – in Africa women do not generally cut cane whereas in the Caribbean they do. In newer crops like cut flowers and export horticulture women make up a majority of the workforce both in harvesting and packing. In Kenya 55,000 people work directly in the cut flower sector, the vast majority are women.

Decent work deficits in agriculture.


I have to put on record that for both men and women employed in the agricultural sector is regrettably characterized by significant decent work deficits. Agricultural workers are often denied access to even the basic of rights covered in the ILO’s core conventions in particular to freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively.

This is not just my view as a trade unionist – a report from the ILO for the 2008 International Labour Conference Committee on Promotion of rural employment for poverty reduction stated.

“Globally, rural workers still form the largest workforce. While improvements have been made in the protection of agricultural workers in some countries, in many others, they are not covered by labour legislation and other regulations protecting workers.

Furthermore, where laws do exist, lack of resources and political will to enforce the provisions as well as isolation, poor literacy, poverty and lack of organization, often prevent workers from fully asserting their rights. The labour protection gap for these workers remains huge…”

“Such exclusions are often due to their employment status (e.g., self-employed, small hold farmers, casual and seasonal workers) or because they belong to vulnerable groups (e.g., women, migrant workers, indigenous peoples, lower castes) making them particularly susceptible to abuse. In addition, labour inspection is often non-existent or weak.

“The labour protection gap is huge and hence the dimension of the decent work deficit for rural workers. This severe decent work deficit needs to be addressed if approaches to address rural employment and reduce poverty are to be successful.”

I would add to that - again using ILO statistics - that agriculture is the biggest employer of child labour with 60% of all child labour taking place in agriculture.

It is also one of the most dangerous industries to work in with the highest rate of fatal accidents and many millions of workers injured or made ill through workplace accidents and exposure to pesticides.

For women in agriculture, as in other sectors, there still remains a significant pay gap between men’s and women’s earnings even with the low salaries that characterize agriculture.

My own experience when I travel to meet women agricultural workers completely confirms the findings of the ILO report. Last week I was in Guayaquil for the World Banana Forum and the 1st ever global meeting of women banana workers. Those women raised three key concerns:

  • the lack of permanent employment opportunity for women in the banana sector;
  • reproductive health concerns related to poor OSH and difficulty to access maternity rights; and
  • sexual harassment at work.

On this last point sexual harassment, it is not just in the banana sector: Although it is difficult to get statistical data on the extent of sexual harassment of women agricultural workers, anecdotal evidence gathered by trade unionists indicates it is widespread especially when women are on temporary contracts or piece rates. Often they have to give sexual favours to supervisors to ensure their contracts are renewed and that they get their full pay entitlement.


On maternity rights although ILO Conventions on maternity rights cover all workers, it is difficult in practice for women workers in agriculture to exercise these rights. Employers often keep women workers on short term contracts, employing them for three months, then after a few days’ break, re-employing them on another short term contract specifically to avoid women gaining entitlement to maternity benefits. In some companies women have to take pregnancy tests before they can be employed.

The ILO’s supervisory bodies have commented on problems including the exclusion or non-coverage of women in the agricultural sector with respect to maternity leave as well as the lack of statistical data on coverage in this sector.

Domestic work
is also a significant employment sector in rural areas - it is not uncommon for the wife or girl child of an agricultural worker to be expected to “help out” in the employer’s household. Their work is unrecognized, unacknowledged, in particular because it takes place in private households. So the IUF strongly welcomes the adoption last year of Convention 189 on decent Work for Domestic Workers.

For me the way to address these decent work deficits for rural women has to start with government ensuring that agricultural workers can really exercise their right to belong to a trade union and to be represented by a trade union; for employers to recognize that mature systems of industrial relations bring benefits and productivity.

And I also must recognize that we as trade unions have to do more to get women into positions of leadership and to make sure that collective bargaining reflects better their needs and aspirations.

I would now like to spend a few minutes on the question of ending hunger and poverty - statistics on this are clear that the vast majority of poor and hungry are in rural areas.

There is a great and cruel irony in the fact that those who feed the world often have the least resources to feed themselves and their families.

In 2008 food riots in urban centres and capital cities lead to front page stories about a global food crisis. In reality it was a food price crisis - rocketing prices for food staples caused by several factors including speculation and production of bio-fuels – pushed many thousands into starvation. There was no shortage of food, people just did not have enough money to buy it.

That food crisis is still there – pushed off the front pages by the global economic crisis but there nonetheless. The FAO estimates that close to 1 billion people are hungry. We need decent work and living wages to ensure people can have enough to eat both in urban and rural areas. Decent work in agriculture should be at the heart of plans and strategies to ensure global food security.

To conclude ...what measures should we be looking for to empower women economically? As I said in my opening, I want to use this opportunity to address the concerns of employed women workers:

The ILO, its standards and its technical co-operation have a key part to play in empowering rural women and ending hunger and poverty. The instruments are there:

  • Plantations Convention, 1958 (No. 110)
  • Labour Inspection (Agriculture) Convention, 1969 (No. 129)
  • Rural Workers’ Organizations Convention, 1975 (No. 141)
  • Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention, 1981 (No. 156)
  • Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183)
  • Safety and Health in Agriculture Convention, 2001 (No. 184)
  • Domestic Workers, 2011 (No.189)

More needs to be done to get them ratified and applied.

Governments should

  • Review national legislation with a view to promoting the extension of national labour law to all rural workers. National legislation should take into consideration the specificities of rural work and spell out the rights and responsibilities of all concerned, governments, employers and workers;
  • Promote gender sensitive employment policies;
  • Strengthen rural labour inspection.

We all need to

  • Develop innovative communication strategies to ensure that rural women workers are aware of their rights in particular maternity rights;
  • Develop skills training programmes and vocational training qualifications for rural women workers.

IWD is for me a day to commemorate women’s struggle but I want to finish on a positive note - those women banana workers I mentioned at the start of my intervention come from countries were to be a trade unionist can be to put your life on the line - Colombia, Guatemala, the Philippines. They have had colleagues and friends killed for being trade union members but they do not give up - they organize and they struggle and they win change. They have won improved maternity rights, time off for breast feeding and they are about to start negotiations to make international women’s day a days’ holiday. They will continue to fight for permanent jobs, for better jobs and for workplaces free from sexual harassment.

I hope they provide an inspiration to us all this March 8.

Thank you.