Empowering Women: Ensuring Agricultural Workers Have a Voice

As commercial farms increasingly dominate the world’s cash-crop market, women’s mass migration into commercial agriculture has become a global phenomenon. In Peru, women take jobs in asparagus-processing plants. Colombian women rely on their wages at flower farms to survive, and women in Zambia toil in vegetable production to feed their families. Rural women now contribute roughly half of the world’s food and women in developing countries generate between 60 percent and 80 percent of the labor needed to produce food crops in developing countries

Yet enabling women farmworkers to gain a voice on the job so they can improve their working conditions is made harder by their isolation and the discrimination they face as women. Union and community leaders from more than 20 countries meeting next week at a Solidarity Center conference in Brazil will share successful strategies for organizing and empowering some of the millions of women toiling in agriculture. Agriculture is one of three themes at July 30–31 conference, “Women’s Empowerment, Gender Equality and Labor Rights: Transforming the Terrain.”

Agricultural remains one of the most dangerous industries and the precariousness of this work is compounded by informal employment arrangements driven by the seasons when cash crops are planted and harvested. This plight is more common for women farmworkers because they comprise between 50 percent and 70 percent of the informal workforce in commercial agriculture.

Women farmworkers also face gender-specific work-related dangers. They often labor alone in fields, where they are vulnerable to sexual harassment, physical abuse and rape. Women workers are offered less training in handling harmful chemical substances, and commercial farm owners prefer to hire women for repetitive, labor intensive tasks that require greater dexterity.

In addition to enduring physical danger, workers are denied decent wages. Higher skilled, permanent positions that require operating heavy farming machinery often are reserved for men. Even when women have comparable positions with men, their wages lag significantly—up to 50 percent less than their male co-workers. Some employers even require a male family member to collect a woman’s paycheck.

Despite these difficulties, women have joined together and improved their workplaces, while winning recognition for the importance of their rights by often male-dominated unions and worker groups.

One such example is Sikhula Sonke, a woman-led social movement and trade union that seeks to address social and labor concerns of those living and working on fruit and wine farms in South Africa. At the conference, labor scholar Nina Benjamin will discuss how South Africa’s first women-led agricultural trade union demonstrates womens’ ability to lead and organize on their own behalf in a union movement whose leadership is predominantly male.