OPINION: Picking a better future: migrant workers deserve more protection

by António Vitorino | International Organization for Migration
Monday, 12 April 2021 08:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Mexican migrant workers pick and load watermelons in Dome Valley near Yuma, Arizona June 18, 2008. REUTERS/Rick Scuteri

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Ensuring global health means including every person in our response to COVID-19 and recognizing that those least protected will be most affected

By António Vitorino, Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) 

In Spring 2020, the pandemic swept across continents, bringing global travel to a virtual standstillThis placed a long-overdue spotlight on a largely unseen, but key element of food production ecosystems: migrant agricultural workersWhile many of us have worked from home over the past year, we have done so in the knowledge that others have borne the brunt of risk in fields, farms, and across global food supply chainsto make sure our shops and markets remained fully stocked. As we move into 2021, it is imperative that those workers are kept safe, and their rights are upheld. 

Agricultural production in many countries of the world is heavily reliant on seasonal workers coming from abroad to grow and harvest fresh products – from asparagus to tomatoes -- for a few weeks or months each yearAbout 27 percent of the world’s 3.3 billion workers are employed in agriculture,1 with migrant workers making up to 25 percent of the agricultural workforce in some countries. The work is temporary, often gruellingtaking place in remote locations, and for relatively low salaries; as suchmigrant workers are not easily substituted by the domestic workforces who prefer more secure jobs closer to home 

In 2020, farmers and governments alike were unprepared for the sudden introduction of mobility restrictions. Several countries quickly labelled seasonal migrant workers as ‘’essential’’ or critical” and created emergency measures and policies to secure the harvest and food supply. This included negotiating agreements for set quotas of farm workers to arrive via charter flights,2 regularizing the status of migrants already working on their fields informally,3 or extending visa and residence duration for migrant workers already present in the country 

While many of those policies were effective in securing immediate agricultural productionmeasures to protect the workers from COVID-19 and ensure dignified employment, protection from exploitation, and housing conditions remained largely inadequate.4 The pandemic has shone a light not only on the critical role seasonal migrant workers play in our food systems, but also on the vulnerabilities, risks, and difficult conditions they face in agriculture and other sectorsHarsh working conditions, crowded employer-provided housing and substandard health and hygiene services are far too commonThe COVID-19 crisis added to the many health and safety risks faced by agricultural workers on a daily basisWith many employed informally, they do not dare seek out social and health services for fear of retribution. 

If the extraordinary events of the past year have taught us anything, it is that our lives and livelihoods are deeply interconnected: migrants, workers, farmers, consumers, and communities across the world are linked in complex economic and social relationships. Ensuring global health means including every person in our response to COVID-19 and recognizing that those least protected will be most affectedGovernments and partners – employers, recruitment agencies, civil society – will need to take concrete steps to ensure the health and safety of those that maintain our fragile food systems in their recruitmentemployment, and access to public services 

While many of the steps taken in 2020 are promising, more needs to be done. Now is our chance to think innovatively and keep migrant workers in the agri-food business at the heart of our decisions.5 

The 2021 agricultural season in the northern hemisphere is approaching fast. While some may have hoped that this year would bring back “normal”, it is now evident that this is not the case. With an uneven rollout of vaccination programmes – many of which are hard to benefit from for migrants – and fluctuating rules over cross-border travel, we remain in deep uncertainty about the future of mobility which is likely to remain heavily restricted throughout 2021.  

We have been on a steep learning curveIn 2021, we have the opportunity to engage in stronger contingency planning, while ensuring migrant workers have dignified, safe and healthy conditions, and do not find themselves stranded without support. We have a unique opportunity to address informal working and exploitation in a meaningful way, putting in place more ethical recruitment practicesexpanding mechanisms for regularizing workers on the frontlinesensuring access to information, and providing essential healthcare – including vaccination – while finding a better balance between employer and worker in terms of bearing the costs of the seasonal work from which we all benefit 

Last year, governments and employers – indeed all of us – were caught off-guard. This year, we have no excuse not to be prepared to offer safe mobility and employment conditions for all agricultural workers – regardless of origin. 

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