Bangkok Post

The long-forgotten farm workers in Asia

Sexual abuse of migrant labourers and slavery is still rampant, write Pranoto Iskandar and Beth Lyon

- Pranoto Iskandar is founding director of the Indonesia-based Institute for Migrant Rights and Beth Lyon is Clinical Professor of Law at Cornell Law School.

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.

 ?? BLOOMBERG ?? A worker loads palm fruit onto the back of a truck at a palm oil plantation in Bukit Basout Estate, Perak State, Malaysia.
BLOOMBERG A worker loads palm fruit onto the back of a truck at a palm oil plantation in Bukit Basout Estate, Perak State, Malaysia.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Thailand