The trafficking of agriculture workers, including children, is widespread globally, and “practices of exceptionalism” limit workers’ rights to freedom of association, organizing and collective bargaining, according to a new report on trafficking in persons in agriculture from United Nations Special Rapporteur Siobhán Mullally.
“Characterized by high levels of informality, lack of oversight and protection, trafficking in persons remains a serious concern within the agricultural sector, affecting both adults and children,” she writes.
The report notes that while the COVID-19 pandemic saw agricultural workers designated as “essential,” worker protections did not follow. Indeed, temporary, seasonal and migrant workers are provided limited legal coverage, and restrictive migration policies persist despite the demand for agricultural workers.
Discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, migration status, gender and disability creates conditions within which trafficking occurs with impunity.
Land inequality, particularly affecting women and girls, drives exploitation, including trafficking for forced labor.
The agriculture sector employs an estimated 28 percent of the total global labor force and an estimated 60 percent of the labor force in low-income countries. Because it is characterized by high levels of informal and seasonal employment, the risks of exploitation are also high.
Discrimination based on migration status leaves workers vulnerable to trafficking.
Gender inequality in land ownership and tenure contributes to poverty, dependency and risks of violence, including trafficking of women and girls. Women are estimated to make up 20 percent of the world’s landholders but account for 43 percent of agricultural workers.
Indigenous women and girls may experience increased risks of trafficking due to the intersection of discrimination and violence, based on gender, race, ethnicity, indigenous origin and poverty.
People with disabilities may be particularly at risk of trafficking in agricultural work, where there is limited oversight and monitoring of worker rights.
Agriculture is the entry point for child labor, accounting for 76.6 percent in child laborers ages 5-11 and 75.8 percent in children ages 12-14. Children who travel with parents migrating for work often miss out on their education, as well.
The Special Rapporteur also highlighted that recruitment practices for the sector–particularly of seasonal, temporary and migrant workers–increase risks of trafficking for forced labor. Recruitment processes and substantial recruitment and other fees often lead to debt bondage.
Meanwhile, “intensive agriculture and agribusinesses contribute negatively to climate change, reflecting the wider nexus between trafficking in persons, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis,” she writes.
The protection of all workers and their families “is essential to prevent trafficking,” she says, urging governments to, among other urgent actions: “Strengthen the capacity of trade unions, civil society organizations and human rights defenders to support agricultural workers, including through effective protection of rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly and to collective organizing and collective bargaining, without discrimination.”
The Special Rapporteur’s report was bolstered by a submission from the Solidarity Center related to the conditions for migrant workers in Jordan’s agriculture sector. The submission noted:
Migrant workers work very long hours in hazardous conditions that lack occupational, safety and health (OSH) standards, medical care and overtime compensation. Forced overtime is an indicator of forced labor under ILO standards. The agricultural sector in general is an informal economy sector, and the work is usually temporary or seasonal. Agricultural areas are isolated and far from service centers; therefore, agricultural workers who suffer from labor and human rights violations do not have access to justice. Forced labor and wage theft are common violations, although usually not reported because of limited access to justice, absence of labor inspection and fears of retaliation and other threats workers face, especially undocumented or irregular workers. Because these workers were not recognized as workers under Jordanian labor law until May 2021, they lacked access to labor courts and were forced to file complaints through civil courts, which do not exempt court fees, making this an inaccessible complaint process for agricultural workers.
The kafala system requires migrant workers to be fully reliant on their employers for legal status. In the case that an employer does not renew a work permit, the worker is punished with deportation and a ban from returning to Jordan for three years. Workers are often deported without receiving their owed wages and other compensation–a form of wage theft, which is also an ILO indicator of forced labor. In cases where agricultural workers leave a workplace to escape harassment, rights violations and forced labor without reporting such violations, they are subject to an overstay fine, which is 1.5 Jordanian dinars per day (approximately $2) and they are subject to detention and false or retaliatory theft accusations by their employers, essentially becoming undocumented workers. Migrant workers rarely if ever report violations, fearing employer harassment or retaliation. Undocumented workers are victims of exploitation by brokers and fixers who charge excessive fees for work permits. A Syrian woman worker said, “Syrian agricultural workers’ wages are the lowest not because they accept to work for low wages but because the shaweesh (the middleman) takes a percentage of their wages.”
The Special Rapporteur’s report cited these examples and supported the Solidarity Center’s conclusion in its submission: “Trade unions are important to combat forced labor and other forms of labor trafficking and exploitation, and to raise workers’ awareness about their rights and the available services and access to justice channels.
“The explicit exclusion of both migrant workers and workers in the agricultural sector is a violation of these workers’ fundamental right to freedom of association under the Constitution of Jordan and international human and labor rights as enshrined in the ICCPR, ICESCR and ILO Conventions 87 and 98. The right to freedom of association is fundamental in a workers’ ability to advocate for her/his own rights, protect themselves from forced labor, and ensure protections from GBVH, and other occupational hazards.”
The Cotton Campaign—a global coalition of human rights, labor, responsible investor and business organizations—yesterday ended its call for a global boycott of Uzbek cotton at an event hosted by the country’s Ministry of Labor for media, activists and government officials in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The announcement came as the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights released a report finding no central-government–imposed forced labor in the 2021 harvest, a success which the Campaign is proposing as a template for removing forced labor from the world’s supply chains. An estimated 2 million children have been removed from child labor and half a million adults from forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector since the multi-sectoral campaign formed.
“[We] have been looking forward to this day for over 14 years,” said Cotton Campaign co-founder and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bennett Freeman, who saluted the determination and courage of Uzbek-based activists and cotton-field monitors.
The historic achievement came after persistent engagement by Uzbek activists, who took on extraordinary personal risk to uncover and document forced labor, joined by multinational brands, international advocates and worker rights groups like the Solidarity Center, and a commitment by the government of Uzbekistan to end its use of forced labor. The boycott began in response to a 2009 petition by Uzbek civil-society activists that launched the Cotton Campaign’s Uzbek Cotton Pledge Against Forced Labor. Since then, 331 brands and retailers signed the pledge, including many of the world’s largest brands, among them C&A, Gap Inc. and Tesco.
“As a journalist and citizen of this country, I am proud to participate,” said Uzbek Forum for Human Rights cotton field monitor Muazzam Ibragimova, who added that her own children were likely headed to the cotton fields as recently as a decade ago.
Although Uzbek Forum’s report found that cotton was harvested without systematic state-imposed forced labor, monitors found cases of coercion and interference by local authorities, as well as individual cases of forced labor. Because independent groups that conduct field level monitoring and capacity building are unable to register and operate freely, progress is “at risk” says the Cotton Campaign in its press release. Given repressive policies that limit freedom of association in Uzbekistan and supply chain practices that have contributed to eroding labor standards in garment producing countries around the world, the Cotton Campaign is calling on the Uzbek government and brands to support worker rights as the industry is poised to grow, and for the government to open the country’s civil society to create the enabling environment necessary for responsible sourcing.
“We need a voice from the ground,” said the Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer for Europe and Central Asia Abby McGill, who added that workers must lead the charge if there is to be permanent success and continued progress in Uzbekistan’s fight against forced labor.
Cotton Campaign Steering Committee member, GLI-ILRF Forced Labor Program Director and human rights lawyer Allison Gill recognized the efforts and courage of Uzbek Forum monitors and pointed to the coalition’s success in Uzbekistan as a template for combating the use of forced labor in cotton sourced from other countries. More than one fifth of the world’s cotton is produced in China’s Xinjiang region where significant evidence of human rights abuses, including suspected forced labor, has been reported.
The Cotton Campaign, of which the Solidarity Center is a long-time member, is a global coalition of international human and labor rights NGOs, independent trade unions, brand and retail associations, responsible investor organizations, supply chain transparency groups, and academic partners. The campaign encourages responsible sourcing to ensure that reforms continue to benefit workers, farmers, and civil society.
GLJ–ILRF is a newly merged organization that brings strategic capacity to cross-sectoral work on global value chains and labor migration corridors.
Uzbek Forum for Human Rights is a Berlin-based NGO dedicated to protecting and promoting human rights and strengthening civil society in Uzbekistan.
A recent study by NORC at the University of Chicago found that child labor in Ghana and Ivory Coast cocoa production increased 14 percent in less than a decade, demonstrating the urgent need for more effective and inclusive interventions, says the General Agricultural Workers’ Union of Ghana (GAWU). GAWU is reducing child labor in cocoa farming communities by applying a child-labor-reduction model honed in fishing communities on Lake Volta that raises awareness and incomes of parents so kids can stay in school.
“Where the union is present, child labor is absent,” says GAWU Deputy General Secretary Andrews Addoquaye Tagoe about a new video produced with Solidarity Center support. He points to the successful long-term GAWU child labor interventions in fishing communities in Kpando Torkor and, more recently, child labor reduction programs in cocoa farming communities, for which GAWU received an international labor rights defender award this year.
Girl opening a cocoa pod with a sharp machete in a GAWU child labor video
Up to 2 million children are engaged in cocoa production in West Africa, primarily in Ghana and Ivory Coast. The two countries together supply about 70 percent of the world’s cocoa beans. As cocoa production in both countries has increased—by 62 percent during the past decade—so has child labor. In Ghana, 55 percent of children living in agricultural households are reportedly engaged in child labor, more than 90 percent of them engaged in at least one form of hazardous child labor.
Unions are at the heart of sustainable, effective interventions because they engage community leaders, including women and youth, in their design and implementation, as recommended by NORC and the Child Labor Coalition. “We are driven to step up our organizing efforts and help new and current members work with community partners to fight child labor in cocoa,” says Tagoe. “Agriculture without child labor is possible.”
According to the Child Labor Coalition, of which the Solidarity Center is a member, “The industry needs to focus on paying a living income while also rapidly scaling up programs that identify child laborers and ensure that children are able to go to school.”
GAWU is the largest trade union representing formal- and informal-sector farmers and agricultural workers in Ghana, and an affiliate of Solidarity Center partner Trades Union Congress-Ghana (TUC-Ghana) and the International Union of Food, Hotel, Tobacco, Restaurant and Allied Workers (IUF).
Gaspar Matalaev, a labor and human rights activist who monitored and reported on the systematic use of forced adult labor and child labor in Turkmenistan’s cotton fields, was released today after serving three years in prison on spurious charges stemming from his reporting.
The global labor and human rights communities are hailing the release, but are united in insisting Matalaev should never have been imprisoned.
“Today is not a victory for justice. Matalaev should never have spent the past three years behind bars,” according to the Cotton Campaign. “We will continue to support activists who expose the injustice of forced labor and modern slavery with the support of our global community.”
The international community rallied in support of Matalaev, with more than 100,000 people signing an online petition to the Turkmen government demanding his immediate release. Activists also picketed the Turkmen Embassy in Washington, D.C. In May 2019, the International Labor Rights Forum awarded Gaspar Matalaev the Defender of Labor Rights Award for making public the Turkmenistan government’s ongoing use of forced labor during the annual cotton harvest.
Some 70 companies, including Levi Strauss & Co and H&M, have signed the Turkmen Cotton Pledge, refusing to supply cotton from Turkmenistan as long as it is produced in a system that relies on forced labor. Additionally, 84 investors of these companies with assets of nearly $860 billion have signed a related investor statement that notes the importance of preventing the presence of Turkmen cotton in companies’ supply chains until the government ends its coercive system.
Turkmenistan: One of the World’s Worst Human Trafficking Records
Turkmenistan has one of the worst human trafficking records in the world, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report. In 2018, the report found that even as the Turkmen government “continued to engage in large-scale mobilizations of its adult citizens for forced labor in the annual cotton harvest and in public works projects, no officials were held accountable for their role or direct complicity in trafficking crimes.”
Human trafficking within countries of citizenship is especially prevalent in cases of labor trafficking, such as in Turkmenistan.
The Turkmen government “tightly controls all aspects of public life and systematically denies freedoms of association, expression and religion,” according to Human Rights Watch.
In April 2018, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said Matalaev was “subjected to arbitrary deprivation of liberty based on trumped-up charges” and his detention was “a direct result of his exercise of the freedom of expression and opinion.” The working group recommended Turkmen officials release Matalaev and compensate him, but the government ignored all calls for his early release.
A survey conducted this year by the Kyrgyzstan Federation of Trade Unions (KFTU), including unions representing mining and construction workers, found that laws against child labor in the country are inadequate and implementation is uneven, resulting in more than 250,000 children being subjected to hazardous work as recently as 2014—10 years after the country ratified the International Labor Organization convention for elimination of the worst forms of child labor. The KFTU’s survey contributed to a scheduled ILO review of core labor standards in the country.
“The engagement of underage citizens of our republic in the worst forms of child labor is an urgent problem,” concluded the KFTU.
Through interviews conducted by Insan Leilek Social Foundation in Sulyukta this year, supported by the Solidarity Center, KFTU found that many children in the area began working in mining as early as age 8, to help support their families. These children, says the KFTU, are denied a complete education, suffer “abusive treatment” and deteriorated health because of inadequate medical care and lack of protection by government agencies.
Mubarak, an 11-year-old girl living in Ak-Turpak village, said about her neighbor: “[He] on purpose summons all the neighboring children to work in his rice paddies. In the rice fields they stand up to their knees in water all day.”
The greatest contributor to child labor, says the KFTU, is lack of enforcement of laws in the informal economy and agriculture. Children are most commonly found working in street trading, domestic labor, cottage industries and agriculture, especially the cultivation of cotton, rice and tobacco.
A 2014 medical study cited by the KFTU found that 8- to 14-year-old market workers on average lifted and hauled more than 1,717 pounds per day, while 15- to 16-year-old children handled an average of almost 3,000 pounds per day.
Nearly half of the children in the countryside (48.6 percent) work, according to government statistics, and the jobs are often hazardous. Children in fields are exposed to pesticides and chemical fertilizers without protective clothing or safe-handling protocols. Citing a 2017 report by the Office of Akyikatchi (Ombudsman) of the Kyrgyz Republic, KFTU describes how children engaged in cotton cultivation that year spent more than 90 percent of their 10- to 12-hour workday in a bent position, with each child bending an average 9,000 times per day. Children engaged in rice cultivation spent more than 70 percent of their 10- to 12-hour workday with the upper body bent, with each child bending an average 19,440 times per day.
To combat the worst forms of child labor, KFTU recommends that the government create a dedicated state program for eliminating the worst forms of child labor—one which welcomes input from civil society. Other recommendations include governmental monitoring of child labor, increased legal penalties for violation of child labor laws, a government-funded campaign to educate citizens about the harmful effects of child labor and the creation of a coordinating council headed by high-ranking government officials of the Kyrgyz Republic.
The survey resulted from a Solidarity Center training for KFTU affiliates on international labor standards, during which participants developed an action plan for submitting workers’ commentary on child labor in Kyrgyzstan to the ILO.
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