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Of the approximately 1.1 billion men and women working in agricultural production nearly half labour for wages. Millions of these workers earn the lowest wages in the rural sector, lower even than the amount required to subsist. This situation exists despite rising agricultural trade and labour productivity worldwide. Working conditions are sometimes appalling and child labour is pervasive.

Workers Share Unevenly in Sector Growth

ACCORDING to the 1996 report by the International Labour Organization, Wage workers in agriculture: Conditions of employment and work, while international trade in agricultural commodities expanded by roughly 3 percent annually over the past 10 years, agricultural wage workers shared unevenly in the growth.

A sample survey of 45 countries from all regions shows that real wages declined for agricultural workers over the last decade in 18 of the countries, with no real-wage changes in eight others. Only six showed strong real wage increases of 30 percent or more while 13 countries showed a drop of 30 percent or more.

Rural agricultural workers also tend to be poorer than the rest of the rural population although not in all regions. (see table below). In Asia and Africa wage labourers display consistently higher rates of poverty than the rural population in general, whereas in Latin America, with the exception of Chile and Mexico, the reverse seems to be true.

Of the 12 countries for which data on the incidence of poverty among agricultural labourers in the 1990s are available, half display an incidence rate above 49 percent, suggesting that on average close to one in two wage labourers in agriculture is in poverty.

Incidence of rural poverty and poverty among agricultural wage labourers, in percentages

The Workforce by Region

Asia dominates the regional distribution of the economically active population in agriculture with 80 percent of the world's total followed by Africa (14.3 percent), Latin America (3.6 percent) and the rest of the world (3.7 percent).

Two countries alone, China and India, account for over 60 percent of the world's agricultural Labour force and 78 percent of the total for Asia.

Nigeria has the largest agricultural labour force in Africa, equal to 17.5 percent of the region's total and 2.5 percent of the world total.

Agricultural labour force in 1990 and 1995, distributed by region

Hours of Labour to Buy a Kilo of Food

IN ORDER to facilitate an international I comparison of the wage levels of agricultural workers, one needs to convert wages into the working time required for the purchase on the local market of 1 kilo of the lowest priced stable (see chart below). The longer the working time required, the lower the purchasing power of the wage.

Among 35 sample countries, in five countries the working time required is over 3 hours and in 14 countries it is over 1 hour. These countries are mostly situated in Africa and Asia. In 15 countries, mostly in Latin America and in Europe, the time is less than 30 minutes.

If, for example, it is considered that 70 percent of an eight-hour workday should generate sufficient purchasing power to meet the basic nutritional requirements of a family of six members, then the working time required to buy 1 kilo of staple should not exceed 1 hour. Above that limit, which is the case for 40 percent of the sample countries, the food purchasing power of the wage may be considered as falling below the subsistence level.

Working time required to obtain a kilo of cereal

Working Conditions: Bad and Worse

IN ADDITION to receiving low wages, agricultural labourers face poor and even dangerous working conditions:

Workforce Projections to 2010

SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA, South Asia and the Middle East/North Africa are expected to see increases in their agricultural workforces beyond 2010 by 47 percent, 33 percent and 14 percent respectively.

On the other hand, East Asia will experience reduced agricultural growth and subsequent decline of the agricultural labour force, particularly in China.

The countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union will see an especially large decrease in agricultural wage employment, dropping to 9 percent in 2010 from 18 percent of the active population in 1990.

In Western Europe, the agricultural workforce is expected to shrink to less than 3 percent of the total workforce by 2010, and in North America to just over 1 percent.

A Six-Point ILO Strategy to Improve Conditions for Workers

The recommendations of the International Labour Organization include:

Pesticide the Deadly Workmate

Pesticide poisoning is a particularly prevalent danger for agricultural workers. In some countries it accounts for as much as 14 percent of all occupational injuries in the agricultural sector and 10 percent of all fatal injuries.

In several countries the fatal accident rate in agriculture is double the average for all other industries, with agrochemicals accounting for a large number of the accidents.

A detailed survey of one producer country, Costa Rica, suggests that pesticide poisonings affect 4.5 percent of the agricultural force annually.

The United States National Safety Council has consistently ranked agriculture among the three most hazardous occupations in the country.

The United States' Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 200,000 and 300,000 agriculture workers a year suffer acute pesticide poisoning.

Spraying Pesticide

This fact sheet was contributed by ILO.

For further information, please contact:
International Labour Office, 4, route des Morillons, CH-1211 Geneva 22, Switzerland
Tel.: direct (4122) 799 79 40: Fax (4122) 788 38 94; email:
Recommended reading: Wage workers in agriculture: Conditions of employment and work, ISBN 92-2-110126-6, ILO, Geneva, 1996.

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