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COVID-19: How Do We Deal with the “Ticking Time Bomb” in Agriculture?

It’s been referred to as a “ticking time bomb” – the Corona virus and its potential impact on farmworkers– the incredibly hard-working men, women, and children who our fruits and vegetables and provide other vital agricultural work. Farmworkers perform dirty back-breaking work and are notoriously underpaid for it and at great risk from COVID-19.

Farmworker advocacy groups that NCL works with or supports like Farmworker Justice, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the United Farmworkers of America (UFW), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and a national cadre of legal aid attorneys have spent weeks strategizing about ways to protect the community which they know is especially vulnerable to the virus.

Advocates have reached out to administration officials and Congress for desperately needed resources to support impoverished farmworker with little to show for it. Despite their essential contributions to the economy, farmworkers have been cut out of the emergency relief packages.  The Trump administration has even revealed plans to lower pay for agricultural guest workers who sacrifice home and family to come to the U.S. to perform arduous farm labor. Advocates fear that decreasing guest worker wages would drive down low wages for farmworkers already living and working in the U.S.

“Sofia,” a 17-year-old tobacco worker, in a tobacco field in North Carolina. She started working at 13. She tries to protect herself from nicotine poisoning by wearing plastic trash bags and a mask. COVID presents new and scary risks. © 2015 Benedict Evans for Human Rights Watch

Farmworkers are poor, with extremely limited access to healthcare. Their poverty often means they work through their illnesses. The workers often toil closely to one another as they harvest fruits and vegetables; they ride to the fields in crowded buses and cars; they have limited access to sanitary facilities, including hand-washing. They often live in overcrowded, dilapidated housing.

The majority of farmworkers are immigrants from Mexico or are the children of Mexican immigrants. The community is socially isolated from main stream America. Poverty forced many farmworkers to leave school at an early age. It also causes them to bring their children to work with them in the fields—-child labor supplements their meager incomes. Language and cultural barriers further their isolation. NCL, through the Child Labor Coalition which it founded and co-chairs, has committed to the fight to fix the broken child labor laws that allow children in agriculture to work at early ages—often 12—and to perform hazardous work at age 16.

When the virus began to move into America’s rural areas, many socially- and culturally-isolated farmworkers hadn’t heard about the virus.  Some were confused that the grocery store shelves were empty; that the bottled water they usually buy suddenly cost much more.

In some cases, farmworkers reported that the farmers they work for have not told them about the virus or the need to take special precautions while working. Farmworkers face an alarming dearth of protective equipment. Many farmworkers groups, including the UFW and Justice for Migrant Women are urgently racing to provide masks and other protective gear.

A farmworker with COVID-19 is unlikely know he or she has it and is very likely to keep working and infect his or her family and coworkers. Recently, a growers group tested 71 tree fruit workers in Wenatchee, Washington, according to a report in the Capital Press newspaper. Although none of the workers were showing symptoms of COVID-19, 36 workers—more than half—tested positive!

The conditions faced by farm workers are a “superconductor for the virus,” noted advocate Greg Asbed of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in a New York Times opinion piece, “What Happens if America’s 2.5 Million Farmworkers Get Sick?” The answer, he concluded, is that “the U.S. food supply is in danger.”

The current circumstances reminded Asbed of a previous crisis: “A century ago in ‘The Jungle,’ Upton Sinclair wrote about how the teeming tenements and meatpacking houses where workers lived and labored were perfect breeding grounds for tuberculosis as it swept the country.”

“Now there is a new pathogenic threat and the workers who feed us are once again in grave danger,” said Asbed, adding that the “The two most promising measures for protecting ourselves from the virus and preventing its spread — social distancing and self-isolation — are effectively impossible in farmworker communities” because farmworkers live and work so closely together.

The looming food crisis is not just an American phenomenon, reported the New York Times, April 22nd in an article ‘Instead of Coronavirus, the Hunger Will Kill Us.’ A Global Food Crisis Looms. “The world has never faced a hunger emergency like this, experts say. It could double the number of people facing acute hunger to 265 million by the end of this year,” noted reporter Abdi Latif Dahir.

“The coronavirus pandemic has brought hunger to millions of people around the world. National lockdowns and social distancing measures are drying up work and incomes, and are likely to disrupt agricultural production and supply routes — leaving millions to worry how they will get enough to eat,” added Dahir.

 “Full Fields, Empty Fridges” in the Washington Post April 23, warned that in the U.S. the farm –to-grocery distribution system is breaking down under the strain of the virus and that farmers are plowing in fields of crops. The Trump administration has announced a $19 billion plan to buy agricultural products and get them to food banks, which are experiencing shortages and, in some cases,  lines of cars waiting for help that are over a mile and a half long. 

In the U.S., the federal government’s responses have been focused on helping farmers—which is fine, we all want farmers to be helped—but we cannot forget or neglect the needs of desperately poor farmworkers.

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As is the case in most crises, the most vulnerable in society will feel the worst impacts of COVID-19. Children, especially those from poor communities, are at particular risk of exploitation as parents fall deeper into poverty during the ensuing economic crisis and face appalling choices about how to sustain their families. Some may feel forced to send their children into the labor market while others seeking employment risk being trafficked for forced labor. COVID-19 may increase the risk of child labor in the following ways:

Schools are closing for indefinite periods of time

  • Children lacking access to the internet and technology, especially those from impoverished and rural communities, will be unable to participate in remote self-guided learning during school closures.
  • In addition to the immediate loss of learning, some students may decide to drop out of school permanently.
  • Experience shows that children and youth not enrolled in school are at a much higher risk of child labor.
  • When schools reopen, parents without jobs may not have the money to pay for school fees, supplies, and uniforms.

Freedom of movement is increasingly restricted

  • This makes it more difficult for community leaders, social workers, and civil society organizations to monitor and provide support to vulnerable children, putting them at a higher risk of exploitation.
  • Public health measures such as stay-at-home orders and curfews will limit access to hired adult labor, resulting in labor shortages and a demand for local workers, including children.

Relaxation of child labor regulation and enforcement

  • Proposals have already been put forward to lower the minimum age for child labor to cope with labor shortages in the coffee sector. It is likely similar moves from other sectors and countries will follow. Cash-strapped governments may weaken child labor law enforcement
  • Weakened child labor laws and enforcement will exacerbate already widespread violations of child labor law, especially in rural and agricultural sectors, where enforcement is more costly and time-consuming.
  • This could lead to increases in hazardous work and other worst forms of child labor, including forced labor and human trafficking.

Increased competition for resources and diminished economic opportunities

  • This will make it difficult for families to support themselves financially.
  • This may compel parents to put their children to work so that they can contribute to their families’ incomes.

Disease outbreaks leading to illness and death can disrupt family ties

  • Orphaned or highly vulnerable children who have lost one or both parents during the crisis lack resources and protection, making them vulnerable to child labor.

Reduced government capacity to support vulnerable children

  • There will likely be a reduction in free meal programs, health services, childcare services, and other social service provisions.

Although businesses must make hard financial and practical decisions during times of crisis, the moral and legal imperative to protect workers in company supply chains applies even more in these times of burgeoning vulnerability. Companies must identify risks, sustain commitments to human rights, and address the unique vulnerabilities of workers and children who are employed at the bottom of supply chains. Steps that companies should take to address the increased risk of child labor during the coronavirus crisis include:

Companies should conduct due diligence to ensure that pandemic response activities do not contribute to the exploitation of children.

  • Effective due diligence entails identifying and assessing actual or potential adverse human rights impacts and taking action to address them.
  • Business for Social Responsibility has created a rapid human rights due diligence tool to help with decision-making and the UN Development Program (UNDP) has developed a Rapid Self-Assessment for Business.
  • UNICEF has developed a guide for companies on integrating children’s rights into business policies.
  • For the agricultural sector, the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) has a library of resources to help protect workers during the coronavirus outbreak and printable materials to share directly with workers in English and Spanish that underscore preventive measures.

Companies must assess where risks are highest in order to prioritize interventions.

  • Countries that have high rates of child labor and human trafficking during relatively stable times will likely be more at risk during a pandemic.
  • The identification of ‘‘hot spots’’ will allow for more targeted interventions. Companies should communicate with suppliers in high-risk countries to understand challenges in identifying and addressing child labor and human trafficking during the crisis and encourage them to make protection of children a priority.
  • Companies may find information about child labor and forced labor risk in international child labor and forced labor reports published by the US Department of Labor, or in the annual Trafficking in Persons Report from the US Department of State.
  • Verité’s Responsible Sourcing Tool highlights the links between child labor and forced labor risks and helps companies understand risks of worker exploitation by sector and geography.

Companies must ensure that supplier policies provide sufficient support to workers and their families at the commodity level.

  • During the crisis, expanded policies should include sick and family leave for all categories of workers, increased health and safety protections, accommodations for remote work where possible, protections for workers laid off or furloughed, and an expansion of worker grievance systems.
  • Access a set of general principles drafted by Verité.

 

Companies must provide increased support for small-scale producers.

  • Companies must support small-scale suppliers with cash and credit to facilitate continued employment of workers, along with paid sick and family leave, and flexible working arrangements.
  • Companies should consider conversion of sustainability premiums to cash transfers or the creation of new, short-term, emergency funds to channel emergency resources to humanitarian organizations, cooperatives, and producer organizations in the areas from which they source.
  • Companies must remind suppliers about the importance of adhering to policies on child labor even during times of crisis. The ILO has guidelines for companies on developing strong child labor policies.

Companies must involve at-risk youth in the identification of needs for support services.

Measures must be taken to ensure support for children left alone due to the hospitalization or death of a parent or caregiver

  • This could include direct support for civil-society groups and frontline social-service providers (e.g. teachers, social workers, and youth groups) so that they can maintain outreach to vulnerable children and youth.

Through multi-stakeholder initiatives, companies can promote information sharing on support services available to children in sourcing countries.

  • These can include free meal programs, mental health counseling, childcare, remote learning opportunities, and birth registration services.

This article originally appeared on Verite’s web site on April 21, 2020.

For more information, contact Lisa Cox at lcox@verite.org.

Please send questions and topics for future articles related to COVID-19 in supply chains to covid19@verite.org.


The photo included in this article is used solely to illustrate the locations and situations in which risk of forced or child labor is being discussed. The people shown in the photo(s) do not represent any specific person or group of people noted in the text.

Photo credit: Nikolai Kazakov/shutterstock.com

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