Agonies Of Agricultural Workers
While the FAO and the global community connected with agriculture and food security have rightly drawn the attention of governments and civil society towards the need to strengthen tenure rights for small landholders, and their access to land, forest and water bodies for agriculture and fisheries, there is one aspect that has escaped the radar, and but for this writer personal involvement in a situation involving a class fellow, it may have taken many more months for this issue to get the attention it deserved. It is well known (though not well documented) that agriculturally prosperous states like Punjab and Haryana are now critically dependent on migrant labour from Bihar and eastern UP for even the most critical sowing and harvesting operations. As long as the migration is ‘seasonal’, and within the country, the impact is manageable. In fact, with the introduction of MNREGA, the wage differentials throughout the country have been rationalised, and we are witnessing the growth of pan-India labour market. Labour moves to regions and areas of intensive industrial and agricultural activity, and is in a position to negotiate and demand fair wages, living conditions, and in several cases, a share in produce and profits. The political voice both in the constituency of the origin as also the constituency of work coupled with the presence of large number of NGOs, trade unions, civil society activists and a competitive medias, and most importantly, the demand supply scenario gives a bargain platform for the agriculture worker. However, unlike a shop floor or a commercial establishment where norms are clearly laid out, by the very nature of agriculture work leaves much of it in the domain of the nebulous.
The issue gets aggravated when we see the global agri production scenario, especially Europe where farmers are not as big as the US farmers to have gone in for complete mechanisation, or as small as in SE Asia or Africa to depend primarily on labour of the self and family. Like the post-Green Revolution prosperous farmers of Punjab, the medium to large family farms in Europe, including dairy farms, are now dependent on ‘hired labour’ but because of the extremely high wage rates in Europe, they are dependent on migrant labour often of the illegal variety, as this is available at a fraction of the cost of European labour. This writer was told that there were at least one million agricultural workers of South Asian origin in Italy alone, and that substantial work in the crop, horticulture and dairy sector was performed by these workers, who were working at starvation wages, often in the range of five to ten euros per day. However as they do not have any work permits, they cannot seek redress from courts, or are also reluctant to talk to their own embassy officials who are also legally bound to send them back to their country with an endorsement on the passport which makes it impossible for them to travel abroad again. It’s a tough and grim human story for those who are caught in these situations and for their family members many of whom have borrowed funds or sold their assets in the hope of finding a better life abroad. The workers are caught in a Catch 22—they have nowhere to come back to, and their own situation is desperate for they are denied even the most basic human rights.
The time has come for the global community to at least take stock of this situation. In the first instance, countries which are signatories to both the FAO and the ILO must agree to undertake an internal assessment of the conditions of work for agricultural workers, determine a fair and decent wage, and take steps to issue voluntary guidelines on these aspects as a prelude to their legal enforcement. If Voluntary Guidelines can be issued on land tenure as also Agriculture Outsourcing, it is imperative that this aspect is also taken on board. A joint working group of the FAO and ILO with representatives from EU, Asia and Africa group must be established immediately to at least take stock of the situation. Before any remedial steps can be suggested, at least an empirical study is in order.
It must be mentioned here that the problem is not confined to Europe alone. Several farms in the North-East are critically dependent on workers from Bangladesh and Nepal and they are playing an important role in agricultural production. True, there is resentment among a section of population against their dominant role in production system; there is no escape from the reality that without them, the prices of vegetables and farm products would become unaffordable. In fact, hundreds of hectares of land in Kerala are left unploughed because the wage rates are so high that farm operations have become unviable. One solution is that work permits for agricultural work should be issued liberally, and they should be treated as professionals and treated at par with professionals in other sectors.
Before concluding, it must be said that this exploratory essay is to draw attention to the critical aspects of food production and workers engaged in this sector. When we eat food, we should also be able to spare a thought for all those who are engaged in the production process, and ask questions on whether those who produce it get adequate recompense for their labour.
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)