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Agricultural Wage Workers: the Poorest of the Rural Poor


Press release | 23 September 1996


GENEVA (ILO News) - Of the approximately 1.1 billion workers active in agricultural production worldwide, nearly half are in wage labour. Many millions of these workers earn wages that place them on the bottom rung of the rural poverty ladder and even below the minimum subsistence level - in spite of rising agricultural trade and labour productivity worldwide, says the International Labour Office in a report issued today Endnote 1.

In addition to a high incidence of poverty, the working lives of agricultural wage earners are "characterised by casual forms of labour, precarious working conditions and little or no social protection", says the ILO report. Transport conditions for workers to and from the fields are often "appalling". Exposure to pesticides and agro-chemicals constitutes a major occupational risk.

Significantly, the share of women in agricultural employment is increasing, with women now accounting for 20-30 per cent of total agricultural wage employment. Child labour is pervasive, amounting in some developing countries to as much as 30 per cent of the workforce.

The report, Wage workers in agriculture: Conditions of employment and work, was prepared for a tripartite meeting of employer, worker and government representatives which will convene in Geneva from 23 to 27 September, 1996 to discuss problems in the sector and explore solutions.

The report points out that while international trade in agricultural commodities expanded by roughly 3 per cent annually throughout the last decade, agricultural wage workers shared unevenly in the growth. A sample survey of 45 countries from all regions shows that real wages declined for agricultural workers over the last decade in 18 of the countries, with no real-wage changes in 8 others. Moreover, the declines outnumbered the increases: "only six of the 45 countries (Argentina, Colombia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Philippines and Sweden) show strong real wage increases of 30 per cent or more, whereas 13 countries show a drop of 30 per cent or more." Among the major elements affecting real wage levels in agriculture, the ILO cites: "agricultural growth, labour force supply, non-farm employment, minimum wages (when they exist) and food prices".

Agricultural wage workers, the report indicates, spend as much as 70 per cent of their incomes for food. A subsistence wage, defined as an hourly wage sufficient to buy 1 kilo of the lowest-priced staple cereal, was found lacking in 40 per cent of sample countries. This means, in effect, that the working time required to obtain this kilo of cereal "ranges from less than 5 minutes (in Sweden) to over six hours (in Central African Republic), with the median working time being 37 minutes, which corresponds to the position of India". In five countries, mostly in Asia and Africa, "the working time is over 3 hours."

A separate survey, based on data from 12 developing countries with large rural populations, shows that in only three countries (Egypt, Morocco and Pakistan) did poverty affect less than 25 per cent of the rural population. In five countries (Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, Philippines and Zambia) over 50 per cent of all rural workers were below the poverty line. However, in all cases, the incidence of poverty among agricultural wage labour is higher than overall rural poverty.

Indonesia and the Philippines, saw a decline in the incidence of rural poverty and poverty among wage labourers. However, the decline of poverty among wage labourers in both countries is "less than for the rural population as a whole". Of the 12 countries half display an incidence rate above 49 per cent, "suggesting that on average close to one in two wage labourers in agriculture is in poverty." In addition to receiving low wages, agricultural labourers are frequently underemployed, working only an average of 175 days annually, leaving them idle approximately one-third of the work year, with little income to sustain them between seasons. While in employment, hours of work tend to be long, often over 45 hours weekly, and dangerous. Agricultural labourers suffer markedly higher rates of accident and fatal injury than workers in other sectors, with very little recourse to compensation. Fewer than "20 per cent of the world's agricultural wage earners are covered by one or more of the nine contingencies of the ILO's Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952, (No. 102) today Endnote 2 , the report notes.

Pesticide poisoning is a particularly prevalent danger, accounting, in some countries for as much as "14 per cent of all occupational injuries in the agricultural sector and 10 per cent of all fatal injuries." In several countries the fatal accident rate in agriculture is double the average for all other industries, with agro-chemicals accounting for a large number of the accidents. Although reliable data on pesticide poisonings are difficult to obtain, due to deficiencies in reporting systems, a detailed survey of one producer country, Costa Rica, suggests that pesticide poisonings affect 4.5 per cent of the agricultural workforce annually. Nor are occupational hazards, including pesticides, limited to developing countries: the United States National Safety Council has consistently ranked agriculture among the three most hazardous occupations in the country and the United States' Environmental Protection Agency "estimates at between 20,000 and 300,000 the annual number of acute pesticide poisoning incidents among agricultural workers."

The report highlights the difficult conditions of work; notably in terms of transport to and from the fields, a problem that is particularly acute due to the migratory, seasonal nature of much agricultural work: "In many countries workers in agriculture are transported over long distances from their living quarters to places of work ... Conditions are inhuman when large number of workers are packed in open trucks and vehicles never intended for the use of human passengers"... "Weight limitations are often disregarded and safety considerations ignored. Numerous road accidents have been reported.

The ILO report cites "more humane and safer conditions of transport" as being in the interest of all parties and recommends "better equipped vehicles to reduce worker stress and fatigue and hence improve the quality and productivity of work." The report underlines the need for "precise legislation setting out the safety and technical specifications for the transport of workers." as well as stricter observance of collective bargaining agreements on transport.

The ILO has been concerned with the situation of workers in agriculture since its inception in 1919. The report proposes a seven-point strategy to build on its previous work in addressing problems in the sector, which, "if adopted comprehensively, could help to improve employment prospects, working conditions and income levels for two-fifths of the world's labour force".

The recommendations include:
Strong labour-intensive growth in agriculture stimulated by investments in infrastructure to generate more employment in and around agriculture;
A major drive in support of more and broader collective bargaining;
A sustained effort to improve working conditions, from transport to occupational safety and health, including a much reduced incidence of child labour;
An employment guarantee scheme of, for example, 80 to 100 days of employment per year during the low season;
Effective application of basic labour standards; and
Extension of basic social security benefits to agricultural wage workers.

Though the workforce in agriculture is forecast to grow over the next decade, only three regions of the world - sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Middle East/North Africa - are expected to see increases in their agricultural workforces beyond 2010 by, respectively, 47 per cent, 33 per cent and 14 per cent. The reduced agricultural growth and subsequent decline of the agricultural labour force in East Asia, particularly in China, will decisively influence the world trend.

The nations of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are forecast to see a particularly large decrease in agricultural wage employment, with the percentage of the agricultural workforce dropping from nearly 18 per cent of the active population in 1990 to approximately 9 per cent by 2010. In Western Europe the agricultural workforce is expected to shrink to less than 3 per cent of the total workforce by 2010, and in North America to just over 1 per cent.

The ILO highlights the fact that a strong agricultural sector is often a linchpin in the development process: "Agriculture is an engine of growth in the early stages of economic development ... Although the agricultural sector gives way to higher productivity sectors, the successful transition to higher levels of development is heavily dependent on how the agricultural transition is managed." A strong agricultural sector feeds into strong industrial development, notably via foreign exchange earnings, domestic income redistribution via wages and increased food supplies, which releases workers from agricultural to industry.

Endnote 1

Wage workers in agriculture: Conditions of employment and work. Report for discussion at the Tripartite Meeting on Improving the Conditions of Employment and Work of Agricultural Wage Workers in the Context of Economic Restructuring. ISBN 92-2-110126-6. International Labour Office, Geneva, 1996.

Endnote 2

Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No. 102), namely medical care, sickness and maternity benefits, family benefits, unemployment benefits, employment injury, invalidity and survivors' benefits, and old-age benefits.