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.”
“We’re really hopeful that there’ll be more attention that’s brought to the issue of forced labor again,” said Neha Misra, senior specialist on migration and human trafficking at the Solidarity Center, a workers rights’ advocacy group.
As one of the organizers of the campaign, the Solidarity Center joined with regional coordinating councils on combating human trafficking; the country’s state agencies on Migration and Youth, Physical Culture and Sports; more than 30 youth organizations; UN agencies under UNODC; and donors including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Campaign activities, held online due to COVID-19, include:
An online media launch event featuring support messages from members of the coordination councils for preventing and combating human trafficking in seven regions, including Bishkek and Osh.
A live broadcast on “Batken Media” television station focused on labor migration during which the chairperson of the Trade Union of Migrants of the Kyrgyz Republic, Zhamalidin Ishankulov, explains how the trade union is fighting for migrant worker labor rights and provides Kyrgyz migrants with information on assistance while working abroad.
A Solidarity Center video message on the importance of the campaign and the role of the Solidarity Center in the prevention of combating human trafficking.
A Solidarity Center webinar for youth organizations that will address the promotion of labor rights and freedom of association as a preventive measure against forced labor and human trafficking.
Two animated videos and two podcasts for social media distribution that emphasize pre-departure training for labor migrants on the rules of registration, basic labor rights information and encouragement to stay home—all of which are important prevention measures against forced labor and human trafficking.
With Few Jobs for Youth, Young Workers Forced to Migrate
Youth un- and underemployment stands at 55 percent in Kyrgyzstan. Most young people feel forced to migrate in search of work, primarily to Russia and Kazakhstan, although also further to South Korea, Turkey or other countries. Kyrgyz migrant workers provide more than one-third of the Central Asian country’s GDP in money they send home. When workers migrate from Kyrgyzstan, they often face discrimination, exploitation and unsafe working conditions. Many are at risk of being trafficked and subjected to forced labor.
The Solidarity Center believes human trafficking is at its core about the exploitation of worker rights, and that the best way to prevent conditions that allow human trafficking is to ensure workers have the tools at their disposal to defend their rights. To that end, the Solidarity Center helps organize pre-departure training for migrants preparing to leave Kyrgyzstan to ensure they are aware of their legal rights and the conditions they may encounter, develops and disseminates informational materials on safe migration and provides contact information for legal support services should migrants encounter problems abroad. Working with partners in both origin and destination countries, the Solidarity Center also documents instances of migrant worker exploitation, including trafficking for forced labor, and helps migrant workers organize and join workers’ organizations to help them protect their rights.
The rankings used to bring with them a risk to a country’s reputation. “Reputationally it meant a lot. It was embarrassing to be on Tier 3 or the Tier 2 Watch List. And if the tier rankings don’t mean anything, then that reputational pressure is gone,” said the Solidarity Center’s Neha Misra.
Imagine the population of New York City. Then triple that number. That’s how many people around the world are being robbed of their freedom through human trafficking—24.9 million.
While “trafficking” seems to imply movement across borders, some 77 percent of those targeted by human traffickers do not leave their country of residence, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). Most are trafficked for forced labor, one-third are children.
Solidarity Center’s Neha Misra testified on Capital Hill on the need for worker rights in forming unions and bargaining as key to ending human trafficking. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“We must address what one leading global expert on the international law of human trafficking calls the ‘underlying structures that perpetuate and reward exploitation, including a global economy that relies heavily on exploitation of poor people’s labor to maintain growth and a global migration system that entrenches vulnerability and contributes directly to trafficking,’ ” says Misra, Solidarity Center senior specialist for migration and human trafficking. Trafficking and severe labor exploitation are part of a continuum of labor exploitation and abusive working conditions workers face around the world in workplaces as diverse as factories, farms and offices.
The Lantos hearing was part of a series of congressional events in January around U.S. Human Trafficking Awareness Month, which marks the date Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000. That same year, the United Nations passed the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (the Palermo Protocol). As part of the TVPA, the U.S. State Department each year issues a detailed report on trafficking in persons, ranking countries on the extent to which they are addressing and eliminating it.
Since then, global nations have a clearer understanding of human trafficking—including its direct connection to forced labor and exploitation—and 168 governments have implemented domestic legislation criminalizing all forms of human trafficking, transnationally and nationally.
Yet as indicated by the staggering number of those trafficked, much more needs to be done.
“Over the past 20 years, the extent of forced labor in global supply chains has become increasingly clear. And yet, governments continue to fail to hold corporations to account,” says Misra.
Migrant Workers, Domestic Workers Targets of Trafficking
Isolated in private homes, domestic workers, whether nationals or migrants, are particularly at risk of exploitation, harassment and abuse, including sexual violence—and have difficulty accessing justice. Domestic workers, who comprise 11.5 million migrant workers—are also among the largest group of trafficked migrant workers and are vulnerable to human trafficking and forced labor—within their home countries, as internal migrants, and as cross-border migrants.
“Recognizing domestic workers as workers is key to combatting the vulnerability they face to human trafficking,” says Alexis De Simone, Solidarity Center senior program officer for the Americas. De Simone spoke at a Capitol Hill briefing Friday sponsored by U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
A domestic worker who requested anonymity described at the briefing the abusive conditions she experienced after a diplomat brought her from Chile to the United States in 2009. She was promised fair wages and benefits, but after she started working, the family refused to pay her. Her employers withheld food, stole her passport, and threatened her with deportation if she talked with anyone outside the household—an all-too common experience for domestic workers worldwide.
Collective Action Key to Ending Trafficking, Forced Labor
Combating human trafficking, forced labor and other forms of severe labor exploitation means putting worker rights at the forefront of solutions.
Domestic workers around the world educated and mobilized for passage of the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers, along the way helping workers understand that violence, abuse, coercion and intimidation are not part of the job. “And that recognition, that righteous indignation, is often the spark for organizing that helps us end the imbalance of power,” says De Simone.
“Recognizing domestic workers as workers is key to combatting the vulnerability they face to human trafficking”—Alexis De Simone, Solidarity Center. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Yet not only international law, but on-the-ground grassroots union organizing and building power among domestic workers is key to combating vulnerability to trafficking, she says. “Union contracts are helping domestic workers worldwide ensure their rights to safe jobs without forced labor and human trafficking.”
De Simone cited examples of how union collective bargaining agreements have improved conditions for domestic workers in Argentina, Uruguay and Sao Paulo, Brazil, and shared the success of domestic workers in Mexico who ensured the country’s new labor law includes domestic workers—often among an excluded group of workers in many country’s labor laws.
Unions also are reaching across borders, building union-to-union relationships between countries of origin and destination like Paraguay and Argentina, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, Nepal and Lebanon.
But “freedom of association must be assured in practice, not just law,” says Misra. “This means strict penalties for employers who fire, retaliate against or collude with government officials to deport migrant workers seeking to form unions.”
Says Misra: “From rubber plantations in Liberia, garment factories in Jordan and to domestic workers’ households in Kenya, Solidarity Center has seen time and again how democratic worker organizing and collective bargaining can eliminate forced labor in a workplace.”
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