Symposium objectives and proceedings
The International Symposium on Work in Agriculture (ISWA) brought together 434 registered participants from 46 countries in a fully virtual format. More than a quarter of the participants were from France, just under a quarter from elsewhere in Europe, and about a quarter each from the Americas (Brazil, United States) and from Africa-Asia-Oceania (India, Morocco, Australia, etc.).
It is estimated that 1.3 billion people work in agriculture (family farmers, salaried workers), i.e. 27% of the world’s working population. The amount of research on the subject of work in agriculture is not commensurate with the sector’s importance in terms of providing employment and as a consequence we are poorly informed about the issues.
The Symposium’s objective was to bring together an international community around issues of work in agriculture in order to:
- Foster a dialog between the often disciplinary and compartmentalised aspects of issues of work which include models of organization of work on farms, the determinants of the labour market, wage labour and migrants, the place of women (status, responsibilities), workers’ health and the impact of innovations.
- Bring together views on work in the Global North and the Global South. Behind the glaring differences, such as the percentage of agricultural workers in the total active population in France and more broadly in OECD countries (3%), compared to that in Sub-Saharan African countries (e.g. Uganda 72%), it is important to note that the essential questions arising in one setting decontextualize and encourage those in other settings, such as questions concerning attractiveness of jobs and what constitutes quality of work.
- Encourage the development of research, training and extension collaborations (extension whether carried out by the State, professionals, the private sector or NGOs). Farmers are more reluctant to talk about their work than about techniques or economics. And their advisers are also ill-equipped to deal with a topic that touches on sensitive aspects and mixes private and professional matters. Operational tools must first help formulate problems concerning work before attempting to find ways of solving them. For the most part, training programmes ignore the fact that organizing work on a farm is an aspect of farm management and that it requires learning, skills and reflective abilities.
The four days of the Symposium involved plenary lectures (with a prominent place accorded to the points of view of international organizations (FAO, IFAD, World Bank), as well as CIRAD), eight thematic workshops, and the presentation of operational tools. A round table discussion was undertaken which shared differing points of view on agricultural work in France (farmers, French authority for farmer health care and social security, Ministry of Agriculture, start-up). The Symposium ended with a session devoted to thinking about the future of work, outlining an interdisciplinary research agenda, and proposing recommendations for training, development and public policies.
The countries of the Global North have relied on increasing agricultural labour productivity by combining, in roughly equal measure, the processes of increasing yields per hectare and of increasing the area farmed per worker, the latter process going hand in hand with a steady decline in the active agricultural population and a substitution of labour by capital. Historically, the labour surplus from rural areas has found employment in industry and, more recently, in the services sector. The industrialization of agriculture, with the use of mechanisation, fertilisers and pesticides, and the development of large-scale livestock husbandry has led to an increase in both metrics: yields per hectare and per livestock unit; and the area of land and livestock farmed per worker. It is less expensive in terms of labour to spread inputs on a field (and this can easily be subcontracted out) than to manage plant diseases and soil fertility with complex rotations, intermediate crops and combined agriculture and livestock farming. Several sets of questions have enlivened the debates on the future of work. If we continue the trends of the last 50 years, are we heading towards a model of farming without farmers, made up instead of holders of capital, salaried workers and hyper-mechanisation? Will there be a place for alternative models of small family farms or farms managed by collectives? What will become of the agriculture “in the middle”, which is experiencing great difficulty today? How attractive can agricultural jobs be for farm managers and permanent or temporary salaried workers at a time when society is increasingly challenging intensive agricultural practices and criticizing the very profession of farming? How can we support the transition to more agroecological systems, which requires a real change in professional standards and values, and in practices and work?
Countries of the Global South have not experienced an equivalent increase in labour productivity. Population density has remained high in rural areas, limiting opportunities for expansion. Population growth in Sub-Saharan Africa will lead to 250 million more young rural people entering the labour market before 2050. This process raises serious questions about agriculture’s capacity for employment, with the predominantly urban-based industrial and service sectors being far from able to absorb the surplus labour force. Moreover, in many countries, working in agriculture entails living in poverty, a lack of acknowledgement of women’s contributions, an existence sometimes of child labour and, increasingly, migration. Several contributors to the Symposium outlined avenues of work targeting youth, the development of employment capacities in territories, the diversification of activities, the regulation of sectors and markets for a better sharing of value, and the exploration of opportunities for adding value to agricultural products through product differentiation and attribute-based labelling. The issue was also raised of promoting ‘decent’ work as a shared objective at the global level, i.e. work that is properly remunerated, with social protection, equality between men and women, and the ability of people to influence the future of their work. Certain options remain highly controversial: some participants advocated aiming for fewer but better-paid jobs by increasing labour productivity; others encouraged the development of agroecology, short circuits and food sovereignty, which would create jobs without damaging the environment.
In addition to agroecology, whose adoption requires learning and skills that are different from the more conventional models of agriculture, and whose quality of employment (working conditions, meaning of work and remuneration) requires further study, two other themes have emerged in the Global North as well as in the Global South: migration and the coming impact of the digital revolution. Agriculture’s strong seasonal aspect has always involved seasonal migrations to cope with peaks in harvest work. The development of more industrial models is being accompanied, on the one hand, by a highly technical workforce and, on the other, by the use of migrants who replace the local workforce in unattractive and often poorly paid jobs. The large number of studies on musculoskeletal disorders among Mexican workers on large dairy farms in the United States is an apt illustration of this phenomenon. In Western Europe, the importance to farms of the invisible labour force from Eastern Europe and the Maghreb was revealed through its scarcity during the Covid19 lockdown in spring 2020. Migrants can also occupy neglected production niches, such as farmers of Bolivian origin in the Buenos Aires market garden belt.
The digital revolution is on everyone’s minds due to its possibilities. Some see it as a lever to further increase labour productivity on large farms in a smarter way. Others see the possibility of using digital technology to help manage complex agroecological systems, and to facilitate exchanges between peers and with consumers. In any case, digital technology is already behind a radical transformation of: on the one side actual day-to-day work (robots, GPS and sensors that lighten the workload, ‘augment’ physical human work capacity, and increase manifold the ability to observe the environment and animals); and on the other side the managerial dimension of the farm manager’s job (new information, new decision support systems). This revolution raises questions about the meaning of work, relationships with animals, decision-making autonomy, new forms of organization of work and relationships with others.
What research agenda on the future of work in agriculture?
Several avenues of work were discussed:
- There is a consensus on the need to bring agricultural work closer to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, in particular via the notion of ‘decent employment’ for all workers which includes both family workers (who constitute the majority) and salaried workers (permanent and temporary) as their numbers are increasing. This is a condition that must be met if agricultural jobs are to remain attractive to young people, in addition to other considerations of: meaning; recognition by society; and forms of modernity (e.g. digital technology) and technicality (management of a complex living world).
- The future of work will be marked by a double movement: on the one hand, changes in agricultural practices and their necessary evolution towards more agroecological forms, and, on the other, sociological and structural changes (expansion, diversification, greater recourse to salaried workers or to contractors, the place of women on farms, the need for parity in the working conditions of salaried workers, and consideration of the farming professions within the society). It is necessary to think about both movements together. This implies changes in the way jobs are conceived including the relationship to usefulness and to what makes a job ‘good’. It also implies changes in skills, know-how, relationships to mechanisation, forms of organization of work for different people, appreciation of what makes work efficient and, finally, changes in the content of real work practice that is closer to crops and animals. This double movement is moreover taking place in a context of climate change (i.e. more uncertainties and undoubtedly more health barriers to human mobility) and a digital revolution that remains largely to be ‘harnessed’ in a spirit of autonomy of thought and decision making.
- Agri-chains and value chains play a decisive role in the expression of work productivity objectives, technical models, and even labour models (labour organisation, mechanisation and building, skills). The long commodity chains are pushing for ever-increasing agricultural labour productivity to minimize costs. Some long international agri-chains are based on quality niches. They mandate specific agricultural practices, respect for the right to work in the producing countries, or models of agriculture (family farming in particular). But as a general rule, the work of agricultural workers remains a black box. In short supply chains, work rhythms are affected by the intertwining of production, processing and marketing tasks. Weekly tasks have to be considered in addition to daily and seasonal schedules.
- The territory could be a scale of analysis that could be useful in an interdisciplinary perspective of study of work. Indeed, it permits the multiple facets of the dynamics of work to be explored and combined, and future scenarios to be debated in a participatory manner. The territory brings together different agricultural and work models. It encompasses multifunctionality with a wide range of opportunities for multiple off-farm activities. It brings together different stakeholders (farmers, agri-chains and sectors, local authorities, associations) interested in agricultural practices, employment in agriculture and the economic and social dynamism of agricultural workers, activities and products.