Agricultural Worker Sector Focus

Agricultural work is critical to global economies, food security, and health and therefore heavily dependent on the workers behind agrarian production, which is estimated to include one billion workers worldwide. Most of them live in poverty and according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), nearly 80 percent of rural farmers in developing countries earn less than USD1.25 per day. Though women make up an average of 25 percent of the industry, in many developing countries, women produce between 60 and 80 percent of food. This represents half of the global production, according to the Special Rapporteur on the right to food. Whether a dominant part of the agricultural workforce or a minority, female farmworkers in all nations experience exploitation and abuse in some form due to the low visibility of the work, power imbalances, and the lack of sufficient legislation. 

Sexual harassment and violence are prevalent in various agriculture sectors as the economic systems of the industry profit off of the vulnerabilities of its female workers. These vulnerabilities are linked to language barriers, the fear of retaliation or deportation, the dire need for employment, and the lack of permanent contracts associated with informal sector work. Women are often silenced or forced to tolerate harassment to obtain or keep employment or prevent wage withholdings. 

As the World Bank report has reported, sexual harassment frequently occurs on plantations where women are concentrated together and even isolated to decrease the number of witnesses and the likelihood of intervention. It is a common practice for male supervisors to ask female employees for sexual favors in exchange for job security and lighter responsibility. These cases have been documented in the cut-flower industry in Kenya, where refusal frequently led to employment termination as reported by Agrilinks. The same report highlighted how female employees in the export tea and rubber industry in Sri Lanka experienced unwanted touching and attempted rape. In another case, in the cut-flower industry in Ecuador, 16 percent of females reported that supervisors offered pay raises in exchange for accepting sexual advances. According to Oxfam, Romanian women employed in the Sicilian horticultural sector face excessive overtime, harsh working and living conditions, wage withholding, and physical and sexual violence. In the United States, similar stories of forced and bonded labor and threats of deportation against female migrant agricultural workers have been reported. In this context, the Community Alliance for Global Justice found that 90 percent of interviewed female agricultural workers employed in California agreed that sexual harassment at work is an issue, a common consensus among female workers in many other agriculture sectors. Workers who have protested or formed unions are met with threats and repression. Cases like these give women all the more incentive to stay silent, endure abuse, and fear to partake in social activism unless legislative action is taken and implemented.  

Perpetrators of violence are not always supervisors but colleagues and middlemen. These cases of violence and harassment especially impact women with familial obligations who do not have the time or resources to search for new employment. As a result, cases can go unreported, and power imbalances are further exacerbated by insufficient labor inspection services and the lack of enforcement systems. The credibility of harassment cases is further complicated by the fact that typically, the only witnesses are the victim and the perpetrator. In many countries, there is a lack of sufficient data about female agricultural workers’ experiences with abuse in the workplace.  

Various UN Special Procedures have shed light on the issue of harassment and violence in the world of work and how activism can be met by retaliation. The 2014 assassination of Margarita Murillo was discussed in the mission report to Honduras, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences. Murillo was president of the farmers’ organization Las Ventanas and founder of the National Farmers Trade Union, and it is believed that her murder was due to her involvement in defending farmers’ rights. The perpetrators remain unknown. On another country visit, it was discovered that agricultural workers in Bangladesh are one of the categories of employees that are not protected under the 2006 Labour Act which increases their vulnerability, as noted in the mission report. These cases emphasize how agricultural workers are often simply not protected by the law.

The 2014 thematic report of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice notes how women compose up to 80 percent of the world’s small-scale farmers. However, they are less likely than their male counterparts to hold managerial positions or receive compensation as landowners. In several South Asian nations, a man’s employment contract in the agricultural sector commonly includes the labor of his wife and children. As a result, women must subsequently balance duties in the public and private sphere. 

In the cases of Guatemala, Peru, and Eritrea, the CEDAW Committee has recommended the States parties to adopt legislation on existing conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) that they have ratified to prevent and criminalize sexual harassment in the workplace. With these concerns unaddressed, women’s livelihood is impacted in addition to their freedom to participate in public and political life. CEDAW General Recommendation No. 34 has emphasized that solutions to violence in this sphere require intersecting the collective efforts of the police, agricultural employers, and NGOs by quantifying and documenting harassment cases, promoting women as supervisors and managers, requiring more intervention from government agencies, and including female agricultural employees in labor laws, regulations, and unions.