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.”
When addressing migration, governments must focus on human rights: “When you prioritize human rights, you naturally shift from criminalization and focus on rights-based approaches,” says Mishka Pillay, a migration and lived experience advocate and campaigner.
“Migration is historical, it’s natural it’s been here for centuries—and it needs to be normalized by countries.”
Approved by United Nations member states in 2018, the Global Compact for Migration reaffirms countries’ commitment to respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights for all migrants. In May, the International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) will assess progress on the compact and the Spotlight Report seeks to ensure that grassroots migrant perspectives on progress and challenges are central to the discussions.
“Morally and ethically it is imperative to listen to people’s lived experiences. Government needs to listen and learn how migration is affecting real people,” says Pillay, an author in the report.
The Global Coalition on Migration, which includes the Solidarity Center, and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung institute, released the report. Today’s launch emphasized the importance of migrants’ agency, including the agency of migrant workers, in the policy and process decisions that affect their lives, including in their workplaces.
Decent Work Key to Addressing Migration
A focus on decent work in origin countries “is necessary to break cycles of exploitation and prevent labor migration pathways from perpetuating global power and wealth imbalances,” writes Neha Misra, Solidarity Center global lead for migration and human trafficking. Misra co-authored the Spotlight Report article, “People Not Profit: Coherent Migration Pathways Centered in Human Rights and Decent Work for All.”
“For too long, failed foreign and trade policies have prioritized the interests of corporations and low-wage, export-oriented growth while actively undermining democracy and accountability, contributing to the push factors driving people to migrate,” the article states.
Shannon Lederer, AFL-CIO director of immigration policy and Yanira Merino, president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), are co-authors.
Among the report’s recommendations:
Migrant workers, regardless of status, must have rights in line with international labor standards for all workers
Migrants must have rights at international borders
There must be alternatives to detention of migrants
Migrants must have access to public services and social protections, regardless of status
Coherent policies must be developed for those migrating due to climate related factors
Countries must adopt regularization policies and rights-based regular migration channels—that allow migrants the freedom to move, settle, work and fully participate in society—over expanding temporary or circular work programs. Countries should promote regular migration pathways that ensure full worker rights, facilitate social and family cohesion, and provide options for permanent residence and meaningful participation in civic life.
Commenting on the report during the panel discussion, Fernando de la Mora, who is part of IMRF discussions through the Economic, Social, Human Rights and Humanitarian Section of Mexico’s UN mission, reiterated his government’s support for a commitment to decent work in origin and destination countries, and summed up the report’s goals this way:
In response to mounting public pressure, companies have moved rapidly to launch media campaigns highlighting their commitment to a green future. The global garment industry is no different. Behind much of this “greenwashing” remains the reality that the garment supply chain was designed to take advantage of production in countries where labor and environmental regulations are lax and to minimize brand responsibility for the practices of supplier factories.
Statement by the NED Family: The National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the Center for International Private Enterprise, and the Solidarity Center:
Vladimir Putin’s illegal and unjustified attack on a sovereign, free Ukraine is a watershed moment in the struggle for human freedom. To meet this moment, we are determined to support democracy activists on the frontline with the same sense of urgency they bring to their own national struggle. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its four core partners—the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and the Solidarity Center—stand in support and solidarity with our Ukrainian grantees, partners, staff, and their loved ones in Ukraine.
Since gaining independence in 1991, the people of Ukraine have time and again demonstrated their overwhelming desire to live in a free and democratic nation. We have been inspired as millions of Ukrainians have worked tirelessly and optimistically to build democratic institutions and practices in their country. Ukraine’s progress and commitment to this goal is what threatens and provokes Vladimir Putin. A democratic example on Russia’s border and a people with a shared culture and history who choose their own leaders, hold them accountable, and display a clear desire to join the community of democratic nations, represent an existential threat to Putin’s more than two-decade rule in Moscow and his ambition to dominate Russia’s neighbors.
Ukraine today is the epicenter of the fight for freedom in the world. The courage of the Ukrainian people—their willingness to risk everything to confront Russian aggression and defend their homeland—is an inspiration. They are a powerful example to all those worldwide who are joined in the struggle against authoritarian regimes that deprive free peoples of their basic rights and liberties, steal national wealth, attack and imprison political opponents, and silence independent media.
So too are the thousands of Russians and Belarusians who have risked arrest or worse to protest this criminal act of aggression. On Sunday, February 27, 2022, more than 10,000 people visited the memorial near the Kremlin marking the spot where Putin’s democratic rival, Boris Nemtsov, was assassinated seven years earlier. This is what Putin, and all dictators fear—ordinary citizens who would like to choose their leaders in free and fair elections and hold those leaders to account.
As the Ukrainian people struggle to preserve their sovereignty, their democracy, and their hopeful future, it is time for all those worldwide who live in freedom to rally to the cause of a free Ukraine.
Putin’s attack on Ukraine comes at a moment when democratic institutions are being systematically undermined across the globe and authoritarian regimes are growing in number and strength. Alert to a great danger, democratic societies should make every effort to secure the freedoms we cherish, the institutions we have built, and the values we have affirmed, to promote a more secure, just, and peaceful world.
Ukraine’s defense should become the valiant first chapter of a global democratic revival. In this task, we are committed to supporting a great coalition of courageous and creative political leaders, civic activists, independent journalists, labor organizers, entrepreneurs, and ordinary citizens who will lead the way.
Up to 100 action points are listed in the new strategy, including several advanced by LI lawyers Inna Kudinska, George Sandul, Katia Shvets and Nadia Yolkina in sections on freedom of association, worker rights, social protections, business and human rights, and anti-discrimination.
“The increasing significance of the LI team’s expertise is reinforcing its ability to make workers’ voices heard,” says Solidarity Center Ukraine Country Program Director Stanislaw Cieniuch.
Action points successfully advanced by LI to promote gender equality include: 1) Ratification of Convention 190, a new global International Labor Organization (ILO) treaty to prevent and address violence and harassment in the world of work that includes gender-based violence and harassment; 2) Amendment of the national labor code on equal pay and reduction of the gender pay gap; and 3) Development of national policies to shift the burden of proof in discrimination cases—including gender-based cases—from the employee to the employer.
LI’s lawyers also advanced action points for amending the country’s law on collective labor disputes, including ways to improve dispute resolution procedures and remove bureaucratic barriers preventing workers from exercising their right to strike.
“Labor is the defining part of life for every person,” reports LI. “[S]trong labor rights protections and rule of law are core safeguards to avoid catastrophic consequences for the people of Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s National Human Rights Strategy—first developed in cooperation with international organizations and civil society in 2015—is intended to develop a document that outlines citizens’ legal protections and to unite society around a common understanding of the value of human rights and freedoms to be protected equally and without discrimination.
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