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.”
In a win for gender and pay equity in the former Soviet region of Kazakhstan, last month the country abolished a list of jobs from which women have been legally barred since 1932. Such discriminatory lists—which force women away from higher-paid work in traditionally male-dominated sectors toward lower-paid, female-dominated occupations—are common in the region, including in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Uzbekistan.
Abolition of Kazakhstan’s list came about after years of advocacy efforts by Solidarity Center partner Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights (KIBHR) in meetings, conferences and other fora with policy makers and government representatives, including the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the Commission on Human Rights under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
“In the modern world there should not be discriminatory restrictions on access to work and all people themselves have the right to choose where and how to work,” said KIBHR Deputy Director Denis Jivaga.
Among the jobs previously denied to women were relatively well-paid jobs in construction, metalwork, mining and oil extraction sectors including: jobs performed at-height or underground; skilled construction, road and metal-working jobs including masonry, ground-moving machine operation, ore smelting, pipe fitting and welding; and specialized work in exploration and surveying such as borehole drilling, derrick installation and pipe pressing.
Kazakhstan’s list—which restricted women from more than 200 jobs on the grounds that the work was too physically demanding or dangerous—was abolished after the Kazakhstan government acknowledged to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that job prohibitions have contributed to gender-pay inequity. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESR) recommended that Kazakhstan consider other forms of legal protection for women to keep them safe at work rather than a total ban on access to certain professions.
“Gender and pay equity require that men and women have equal access to all types of work, and that all jobs be made safe for all workers,” says Solidarity Center Europe and Central Asia Regional Program Director Rudy Porter.
Vanessa Cordoba, a goalkeeper on Colombia’s women’s national soccer team, is familiar with tough challenges. But when she debated whether to join some of her teammates’ high-profile campaign to end gender discrimination in the women’s soccer league, she had to confront a barrier many women in her position face: fear of losing her job.
“There is a point in life where you choose,” she said in a recent interview at the Solidarity Center. “And I decided I’m going to do it.”
Cordoba and other women soccer players are now pursuing an industry-wide collective bargaining agreement that includes the men’s teams.
“That’s the only way we can change things in soccer, says Cordoba. “We have more power if we bargain for the entire sector.”
Training Equipment: Two Medicine Balls and Beat-up Boxes
Colombia’s Atlético Huila women’s soccer players were forced to sleep on the airport floor following their championship win. Credit: Fare.net
Colombia’s professional female soccer team, launched in 1998, played in the 2011 and 2015 World Cup as well as at the Olympic Games in the same years. The professional women’s league was created in 2017, and in the following year, Colombia’s Atlético Huila won the Copa Libertadores, South America’s most important club-level tournament.
Yet women players are paid less than the men and only get three-month contracts, while men play on multiyear contracts. The men train in state-of-the-art gyms; women players’ equipment consists of two medicine balls and beat-up boxes to practice jumping. The Colombia Football Federation (FCF) even eliminated their $20 a day training stipend. A video on social media in December shows the Atlético Huila women’s soccer players forced to sleep on the airport floor following their championship win.
Their marginalization was compounded, says Cordoba, when Adidas used star player James Rodríguez to represent the men’s team for unveiling new jerseys, but recruited a former Miss Universe, Paulina Vega Dieppa, to promote the women’s jerseys. Cordoba expressed her displeasure about the move on social media.
“I understand that for publicity’s sake, they preferred to give the jersey to Paulina Vega, but in terms of respect and merit, THE PLAYERS count as well,” she Tweeted, a message the media quickly twisted into a Soccer Player v. Miss Universe narrative. Reflecting on her comments today she says, “If we are talking about marketing, development of the women’s league is a big part of the overall goal.”
‘We’re Not Afraid Anymore. We’re Here to Speak Up’
The longstanding gender discrimination against women players burst into the public in February, when former professional soccer players and Colombia national team players Isabella Echeverri and Melissa Ortiz released a video to highlight the disparities with their male counterparts, stating, “We’re not afraid anymore. We’re here to speak up.”
The video went viral, setting off a national dialogue at a time when the top-ranked U.S. women’s soccer team filed a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer alleging discrimination, and Latin America’s #NiUnaMenos (Not One More) movement campaigned for an end to sexual harassment and gender-based violence.
A handful of women soccer players gathered for a press conference in March to publicly back up Ortiz and Echeverri. Cordoba was among them.
“I figured my career would end after the press conference,” she said.
For Vanessa Cordoba, a goalkeeper for Colombia women’s national soccer, tackling gender discrimination was one of her biggest challenges. Photo from Cordoba Twitter
Members of the all-male FCF Executive Committee refused for months to meet with the women represented by the National Association of Professional Soccer Players union, ACOLFUTPRO, about their demands for equal treatment, but have since come to the table. The Solidarity Center is supporting the women players in their efforts and is assisting ACOLFUTPRO in preparing a proposal for negotiations with the Colombian Soccer Federation, and another to establish a sectorwide bargaining policy with the labor ministry.
Additionally, the Solidarity Center helped the union engage the national Ombudsman’s Office, which filed a constitutional complaint for gender discrimination against the employers of the individual soccer clubs and the federation. The Solidarity Center documented players’ testimonies and contributed legal arguments that form the basis of the complaint. In August 2019, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the women players, ordering both the employers and ACOLFUTPRO to present plans for gender equality.
Cordoba, who graduated from Ohio University with a degree in communications, also works at Caracol, one of Bogatá’s top radio stations. Her father, Oscar Cordoba, a former star soccer player, at first sought to protect her from the controversy, but ultimately supports her efforts.
“I’m very passionate about gender equality,” she says. “Women’s soccer was able to open the door to change soccer in Colombia.”
“When Workers Become Targets: Nigeria,” is a collection of real-life experiences of workers, particularly women, during the Boko Haram insurgency in Borno State, North-East Nigeria, and how unions whose members suffered the greatest toll played a crucial role in the rehabilitation of people displaced by the insurgency and held government accountable by speaking out against the forced return of workers to unsafe areas.
The report looks at Indonesia’s migrant worker system, which is under intense scrutiny over allegations of contributing to debt bondage and trafficking of migrant workers. It also examines efforts of government and non-government organizations to combat trafficking, and the effectiveness of legislation to combat trafficking, enacted during the last three years.
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