The gendered impact of unfair working conditions in agriculture

The agricultural industry has long been plagued by persistent labor issues, many of which stem from the informality at the lowest levels of production. This problem is particularly acute when agricultural products are sourced from outgrower farmers who are not directly affiliated with agricultural processing companies. These farmers typically sell their produce to companies through brokers, which creates a further disconnect between the farmers and the companies. This lack of a direct relationship and structured oversight leads to numerous labor issues that are rarely addressed. 

In addition to outgrower farmers, waged workers directly employed by companies often face similar challenges. Despite their direct employment, they frequently contend with inadequate pay and job insecurity. These workers, like their outgrower counterparts, suffer from poor working conditions, inadequate protective gear, low wages, and excessively long working hours. 

A critical issue is the absence of formal contracts and agreements. This often leaves farmers and workers vulnerable to exploitation, with little recourse to address grievances. Without a structured system of accountability, these systemic problems continue to perpetuate, negatively impacting the overall sustainability and ethical standards of the agricultural supply chain. 

Women, in particular, are disproportionately affected by labor issues in the agricultural industry. They are often at the forefront of farming operations due to entrenched gender roles, especially in Africa, where women traditionally manage both the home and farms while men work outside. As a result, women plant, tend, and harvest crops that ultimately reach distant markets, yet they frequently face discrimination and harassment compared to their male counterparts. 

Even within company setups, women are often paid considerably less than their male colleagues for the same work. They are also more susceptible to sexual harassment, facing demands for sexual favors to secure or maintain their jobs. This exploitation adds another layer of hardship to their already challenging roles. 

In outgrower farms, despite their significant contributions, these women often endure these challenges for years without owning the farms they manage. The patriarchal structures deeply rooted in these communities further exacerbate their vulnerability, leaving women with little recognition or control over the land they work. This lack of ownership and authority not only limits their economic empowerment but also perpetuates a cycle of inequality and dependence. 

Agricultural supply chains are typically global, with end users distributed worldwide. Despite value addition along the supply chain, a significant discrepancy exists between the earnings of farmers and those who sell the finished products. A striking example of this is found in the cocoa industry. Cocoa producers often endure harsh and indecent working conditions, while the end product—chocolate—is sold at high margins. This disparity highlights a critical issue: the failure to adequately benefit those at the very core of the supply chain. 

The inequities in these supply chains stem from multiple factors. Market dynamics, such as the volatility of product prices and the power imbalance between smallholder farmers and multinational corporations, play a significant role. Farmers often lack bargaining power and access to markets, forcing them to sell their produce at low prices. Additionally, insufficient infrastructure and support services in producing countries further compound their challenges. 

Read also: To achieve new impetus towards gender parity, all stakeholders need to act in five priority areas 

To truly benefit producers in the agricultural supply chain, systemic changes are necessary. This includes implementing policies that support fair pricing and enhance transparency through traceability, which tracks products from their origin to the end consumer. Traceability ensures fair labor practices, ethical sourcing, and sustainability. Several alliances and certification programs, such as the Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade certification, mandate traceability to guarantee ethical and sustainable practices. These certifications are becoming increasingly mandatory for exported crops, especially in the EU and Americas, motivating processors and marketers to uphold ethical labor practices in their operations. 

Additionally, improving access to markets and investing in rural development are crucial. Strengthening farmers’ bargaining power through cooperatives and associations can help them secure better deals. Moreover, raising consumer awareness about the origins of their products and the conditions under which they are produced can drive demand for ethically sourced goods. 

Ultimately, addressing the gendered impact of unfair working conditions in agriculture requires targeted interventions that empower women. This involves not only policy changes and certification programs but also concerted efforts to dismantle patriarchal structures, promote gender equality, and ensure that women’s contributions to agriculture are recognized and fairly compensated. By focusing on these areas, we can create a more equitable and sustainable agricultural industry that benefits all producers, particularly the women who form its backbone. 


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