The long-forgotten farm workers in Asia
Sexual abuse of migrant labourers and slavery is still rampant, write Pranoto Iskandar and Beth Lyon
If you are in Asia, a young child worker or a trafficked migrant probably handled the food you ate today. Consumers, food retailers and governments turn a blind eye to the extreme exploitation of farmworkers. According to a recent study, more than 93% of Thai agricultural workers work “without the protections of regulations or enforcement of labour or health and safety laws or enrolment in a social security system”. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) reports that, in the AsiaPacific region, 122 million children aged 5-14 years are compelled to work for their survival, more than any other region in the world. Worldwide, 71% of all child labourers are in agriculture, which is the world’s third most dangerous occupation. One ILO survey instrument for agricultural injuries is a picture of Elmo so children can point to the places where they have been cut or lost body parts.
Agriculture remains t he bedrock industry in many Asian countries, and it is addicted to low wages, vulnerable labour. The loss of child and migrant farm labour would paralyse national economies such as Malaysia and Thailand. Why does the agricultural industry deliberately recruit and exploit vulnerable people? Farm workers are suffering and are the products of a unique combination of circumstances: agriculture is a massive, politically powerful industry, carrying out its work largely in geographically remote places. As a result, the industry is able to subvert worker protection laws and government monitoring to cut labour costs.
Agriculture has ever been thus: Throughout pre-colonial Southeast Asia and its surrounding countries, “labour-borrowing”, more accurately labelled slave raiding and slave trading, was well established. In the early years of anti-colonial struggles, farm workers occupied a special place. Former Indonesian president Sukarno centred his rallying cry on the “Marhaen”, or landless rural worker. Cambodia’s Pol Pot and China’s Mao Zedong abused farm workers as the lifeline for their colossal revolutions that ended up as two world’s greatest human catastrophes.
Most, if not all, the nationalist figures have employed farm workers as their legitimating myth, be it for conservative or left causes. History has confirmed again and again that support for farm workers turns out to be an empty promise. Worse, the post-colonial promises have only led to further entrenchment of the utterly heinous pre-colonial feudalism over farmlands and the people who work them.
Fast forward to modern reality, and human beings are still enslaved: Indonesians working in Malaysian palm oil plantations; Vietnamese, Cambodian, Myanmar, and Laotians working in the Thai fishing industry. This is all happening under the nose of a region that claims to be concerned about trafficking but remains intensely enthralled by the spectacle of anti-immigrant ultra-nationalism that politicians put on for votes.
As a case in point, a Malaysian politician recently used anti-immigrant slurs for political purposes, blatantly demonising migrant workers as disease-carriers. It is little wonder that Asia — and particularly Southeast Asia — is slow to humanise its migration policies. The region’s recalcitrant attitude towards the UN Refugee Convention extends to the treatment of low wage migrant workers, who make up the bulk of the fishing workers and farm labourers around the region. For farmworkers in fishery, the South China Sea is not about the theoretical sovereignty of a particular state; rather, it is a matter of life and death in its literal sense.
All the while, many others who work in agriculture, such as Malaysia’s palm oil and Indonesia tea plantations, toil in no less brutal working conditions, at starvation wages. Non-citizen workers predominate in Malaysia’s palm oil industry. Being a non-citizen itself has been an exclusionary justification from enjoying basic entitlements; thus, the remoteness of geographical workplace makes for extreme subordination. It does not stop there: the abuses, including sexual assault, extend to farmworkers’ family members.
Indonesia’s tea pickers tell another disturbing story, in which post-colonialism is no more than a perpetuation of a colonially imposed exploitative working relationship. The nationalisation of colonial tea plantations does not represent a complete break with the inhumane past. The basis for the working relationship between the tea pickers and the national plantations is based on “implicit servitude”, where the docility of workers, mostly older females, is leveraged to exclude them from existing labour laws. As a result, pickers earn $1.50 (47 baht) a day, 50% of the national minimum wage of $3. These ancient patterns of abuse must be disrupted.
Southeast Asia has rapidly experienced manufacturing global value chains where the physical borders of states have become less and less relevant. This is the order of the day for many agricultural industries. For instance, the absence of Indonesian workers would bring the Malaysian palm oil industry to a grinding halt. The output of the Thai fishing industry is similarly dependent on a ready supply of docile and low-paid migrant workers. It is time for governments, employers and consumers in the region to undertake globalised policy and law making.
The first priority is for government and funders to take responsibility for farmworkers. The laws that are already in place for other workers must be extended to agricultural workers and to undocumented workers as well. Governments must ensure there are sufficient agricultural labour inspectors for monitoring and enforcement. Finding ways for children to be in school, not in the fields, should be a top priority for every country. The Thai government’s new project to reduce child labour in the fishing and seafood industry is a good model for the future.
Regional government must also actively engage this issue, because national governments cannot and will not do this alone. Domestic industries have much to gain from employing vulnerable people, while children and irregular migrants have no vote. The region has to begin taking responsibility for this transnational workforce instead of facilitating a race to the bottom.
Countries of origin and countries of employment must work together to address the ghastly condition of food workers.
With the adoption of the 2017 Asean Consensus on the Migrant Rights, there is a dim light at the end of the tunnel, but it is a long tunnel. The Asean Human Rights Commission is in need of fundamental updating. The most urgent step is for the Commission to accept communications from victims and right groups, a move that would require no new laws or treaty-making. In the medium term, the protection of agricultural workers should be addressed through the creation of specialised standards and monitors focused on the particular types of dangers farmworkers face. To bring human rights to the rural population, the 2015 Draft UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas is a useful starting point.
In addition, the agricultural industry and the retail food system have to transition their profit model and pay more for labour, to begin to alleviate the unnecessary deep poverty and suffering of this workforce. These industries do not have to be built on misery, simply because slavery and extreme exploitation of farm labour has been politically easy since time out of mind.
Finally, middle- and upper-class consumers have to pay more for our food, and the extra we pay must go directly back down the food chain to farm workers. Product certification is now common in many industries, and it is entirely possible in agriculture as well, including the muchdiscussed fisheries and palm oil industries. This is a winning formula not only for today’s increasingly ethics-conscious consumer, but for the vulnerable groups who currently toil and suffer in obscurity.