By Gyan Pathak
Social protection for rural workers in ‘remains a dream’ though 80 per cent of the poor of the world live in rural areas. Inadequate safety at work, low wage, lack of stability and security, and excessive working hours are the grinding stones for them in which women and young workers are the hardest hit by severe decent work deficit.
It is the gist of the latest report titled “Decent work deficits among rural workers” released by Bureau for Workers’ Activities (ACTRAV), which is a part of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The report defines the decent work deficit as a condition that includes deficit in: employment opportunities and treatment in employment; adequate earnings and productive work; decent working time; balancing work family and personal life; stability and security of work and social protection; and in a safe work environment.
COVID-19 has worsened the situation especially in India due to returning of large number of migrant workers from cities to their homes in rural areas while the government’s response was not only inadequate but troublesome. Even this report said, “Troublingly, two countries enacted legal changes that eroded worker’s rights. India partially suspended some labour laws on a temporary basis. Normal working hours were extended, third-party inspections were discontinued, and trade unionization was suppressed”.
The sectors comprised predominantly of smallholders experienced wide range of impact which ultimately exacerbated decent work deficit including delayed or non-payment of wages. Income for rural workers dropped up to 39 per cent, jobs lost up to 7 per cent, and poverty increased up to 20 per cent for some countries.
The report is the summary of the findings of 16 case studies covering 15 countries commissioned by the ILO to ACTRAV in mid-2021 to examine the situation concerning decent work and existing opportunities for trade union organizing in rural economies in selected countries and economic sectors in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Eastern Europe. India was one of them. The report has specifically included decent work deficit in tea production and plantation sector in India.
The importance of the report lies in the fact that rural workers and employers constitute a huge reservoir of often untapped potential in the global economy, as ACTRAV recognizes – one that has not received sufficient attention either internationally or within national development and labour agendas. ILO has also concluded that poverty in emerging and developing countries is predominantly a rural phenomenon, since 80 per cent of the poor live in rural areas. It is despite the fact that rural economies include apart from agriculture, the non-agricultural activities in sectors such as mining, manufacturing, utilities, construction, commerce, tourism, transport, and financial, personal and government services. Moreover, the poorest rural households often rely on income from wage employment, mostly owing to their lack of access to productive assets that would enable them to succeed in self-employment.
Since the large majority is of those in precarious work conditions, including informal, casual, temporary and subcontracted workers and day labourers on agricultural plantations, the severe decent work deficit is of particular concern. The report also shows that deficits in working conditions are found in every sector and in relation to every substantive element covered by the framework of ILO’s Decent work indicators.
The report presents key findings and recommendations for trade unions. It says that the trade union leaders and representatives from around the world have agreed that extending social protection coverage and strengthening social protection systems is of highest priority. The fallout from the pandemic has underlined the need for governments to make social protection a reality for all.
It reveals that child and forced labour as well as debt bondage remain a reality for many worldwide. Since the workers are dependent on employees in many ways, forced labour is also linked to them. Forced labour issues were also found in India, which primarily revolve around indebtedness. Employers offer workers high-interest loans that plunge workers into a cycle of induced indebtedness.
Child labour has been identified as a concern, for both family and non-family child labor. Hazardous child labour up to 95 per cent has been noted in agriculture, especially in the cocoa, palm oil, and tobacco sectors. “Many of these workers are young and left school at an early age with little or no skills training. The transition from education to gainful employment is difficult, if not impossible, for many young people in rural areas. Most rural workers operate in the informal economy, which includes a large proportion of women working as unpaid care workers who have no access to maternity leave and other essential protections. Many young men are employed as seasonal, temporary and migrant workers and do not enjoy the benefit of belonging to a trade union. Additionally, women and children are heavily involved in unpaid family and child labour,” Maria Helena André, ILO Director for the ACTRAV Bureau has said in the report.
Women workers are disproportionately represented in the most precarious positions. They are enforced or tend to accept low-paying, low skilled jobs, suffer huge gender pay gaps, and more prone to workplace harassment and abuse compared to male workers, the report reveals.
Chemical exposure is also posing serious health and other risks to agricultural workers, particularly to children and pregnant and lactating women.
“Most rural workers operate in the informal economy, which includes a large proportion of women working as unpaid care workers who have no access to maternity leave and other essential protections,” Ms André said. “Workers in rural areas have many aspirations” however, realizing them is “a tremendous challenge.”
Weak social dialogue and barriers to accessing worker’s organizations exist. In many sectors, trade unions are either non-existent or face barriers to interacting with other workers’ organizations such as farmers’ group and cooperatives. Social dialogue and representation for female, informal, casual, seasonal, temporary and self-employed workers, are all areas of particular concern, as is the representation of small householders.
The ACTRAV report makes a number of recommendations, including the strengthening of labour administration in rural economies, improving the presence and capacity of trade unions and other grassroots workers’ organizations in rural economies, formalizing informal enterprises and employment arrangements, integrating rural economic sectors into formal and institutionalized social dialogue, strengthening crisis preparedness and social protection in the rural economy, more research and policy analysis to better understand and respond to the needs and expectations of rural workers, and the ratification of and adherence to relevant ILO conventions and other International Labour Standards.
“The economic development, trade and investment, employment and social protection policies of countries must become more ambitious, as must their frameworks for a just transition to a greener economy and their labour market information systems,” underscored Ms. André. (IPA Service)