If we can imagine a resilient, sustainable food system that is environmentally sustainable, protects biodiversity, reduces carbon emissions and mitigates climate change, restores bee populations, reduces pesticide use, removes harmful pesticides, reduces food loss and food waste, and produces enough food to satisfy the universal right to food and nutrition … then why can we still not imagine agricultural work being a good job?

Formal waged employment in agriculture constitutes 28% of the global workforce. Workers on farms and plantations constitute the largest group of agricultural producers in the world. Over two thirds of the 1.1 billion people engaged in agriculture are farm workers, both formal and informal. This includes migrant and seasonal workers, marginal and landless farmers who rely on seasonal employment, and the vast informal sector of farm workers paid not in cash but in kind.

No doubt there is a complex interaction of environmental, climate, health, economic, social and political factors that must be addressed comprehensively to ensure inclusive, sustainable, and resilient food systems. In doing so we should recognize that farm workers constitute the majority of those contributing to agriculture and their labour contributes to change. Farm workers must be an integral part of this transformation. Yes, it is common sense. But it could be one of the most difficult challenges we face.

First, there is a lot of attention given to the “voices” of workers in farms, fields and plantations. But too often agricultural workers’ voices are included when addressing pesticides, hunger, poverty wages, child labour, gender equality and discrimination. But when the social audit, research, conference, mission, or project is over – their voices are silenced, or no longer heard. Farm workers’ voices can only be heard consistently and have a real impact if they are expressed through collective representation, and that this representation is through resilient organizations freely formed by farm workers, for farm workers.

Second, there is something inherently negative in our view of agricultural work. At the height of the pandemic, with rising unemployment, lockdowns and strict border closures, governments were still flying or trucking in migrant workers to work on farms and plantations. Apparently, this is work that no one wants to do.

One reason is that vulnerability has become so integral to agricultural employment. To pay the lowest wages possible, to compel workers to work in hazardous conditions, to handle toxic pesticides, to work long hours in fields without water or food or toilet facilities, to work without complaint … this is all built on vulnerability. Migrant workers, women workers, refugees, undocumented and displaced, indebted, and without community support – are all common characteristics that speak to vulnerability. This vulnerability means that agricultural work can continue to be brutal, underpaid, insecure and dangerous. Because workers cannot speak out, they cannot complain, they cannot say “no!” – they have no voice and no choice.

If we add the social, physical and economic vulnerability of women continuously manufactured by patriarchy, then we can see the systemic vulnerability at the heart of all food systems.

If we look at the farmer protests in India today, we see farmers rising up to protect their livelihoods, land and food security. We support that. What we do not see is that rice and wheat farmers in Punjab and Haryana who receive crop price support from the government (because these crops are essential to food security) refuse to employ local farm workers. They complain that local farm workers want higher wages and won’t work long hours. So they bring migrant workers from the poorest states of Bihar or Uttar Pradesh to work in their fields. Coming from poverty – many of them climate migrants (farmers forced off their land due to climate change) – and displaced, they are vulnerable. They work in hazardous conditions and are paid poverty wages. In this way government crop price support benefits farmers but does not translate into living wages for farm workers.

The point is that the vulnerability of agricultural workers is deliberate and constructed. Vulnerability is integral to agricultural work because farmers, buyers, traders, food companies and supermarkets have built food systems that rely on this vulnerability for flexibility, efficiency and profit. This is one of several factors that makes our current food systems inherently unsustainable and unjust.

This poses an important question about the approach of certain kinds of non-government organizations, foundations, CSR and social auditing bodies that assume vulnerability is an inherent condition of agriculture and agricultural work. Workers’ voices appear as examples of poverty and inequality and abusive practices (testimonies) and solutions are crafted for them. Living wage plans, livelihood schemes, fair crop prices, all attempt to lift farm workers and their families out of poverty. These organizations assume that workers are too vulnerable to speak for themselves. Yet in speaking for workers, they end up speaking instead of workers.

This approach is unsustainable because it implicitly accepts the existing vulnerability as given. Such approaches are unsustainable because nothing is done to address the underlying causes of this vulnerability. And these approaches are exclusive because farm workers are excluded from collective decision-making and authority when it comes to creating and implementing solutions.

Remaking food systems to become fairer, more equitable and sustainable requires a more fundamental social and political transformation that removes vulnerability as a necessary condition of agricultural work.  Again, this is common sense. But it will not happen unless we ensure that farm workers have the collective power to overcome and dismantle their systemic vulnerability.

What is needed is a legal and political environment in which farm workers can exercise their universal human right to freedom of association.

One hundred years ago the International Labour Organization (ILO) of the United Nations guaranteed this right when it adopted International Labour Convention No.11 Right of Association (Agriculture) Convention, 1921. Article 1 of the Convention explains the purpose is to:

…. secure to all those engaged in agriculture the same rights of association and combination as to industrial workers, and to repeal any statutory or other provisions restricting such rights in the case of those engaged in agriculture.

This is based on the understanding that freedoms exist because of what others cannot do to you. In this case it means governments and employers cannot restrict or limit in any way farm workers’ ability to associate and combine together to collectively represent themselves.

More importantly, this is the right of farm workers to combine together to counter-balance the power of governments and employers. This combination gives farm workers the collective bargaining power to secure safe work and negotiate living wages.

While the reality is that most agricultural workers today cannot access their right to freedom of association, several kinds of foundations, NGOs and community organizations play an important role in exposing exploitative conditions and raising rights issues. Yet in addressing this exploitation and rights violations we must work together to identify what is preventing workers from organizing themselves. We need to remove these restrictions to ensure freedom of association.

Through their unions farm workers can negotiate living wages and fair wages and not have it imposed on them. Through collective bargaining farm workers can lift themselves and their families out of poverty. And as the International Labour Organization (ILO) of the United Nations has recognized, consultation cannot be a substitute for collective bargaining.

In a broader sense sustainability needs governance or oversight. There is no greater oversight than what agricultural workers see every day: they see what is happening, they see the changes, or lack of change, because in the most practical way they are doing it. This then creates an important role for agricultural workers’ unions in ensuring sustainable farming in practice.

As farm workers combine to counter-balance the power of governments and employers, we can ensure a creative tension that propels sustainability forward. Without this daily, organized pushback in fields, farms and plantations, there is nothing to keep employers and governments on the right path to sustainability.

Ultimately it is through this combination and association in trade unions, exercising collective bargaining power and collective representation, that farm workers can overcome and eliminate the vulnerability deliberately built into agricultural work by farmers, buyers, traders, food companies and supermarkets. Vulnerability will no longer be an integral aspect of agricultural work and working in agriculture – feeding the world – can finally be a good job.