Women in Agriculture: Harvesting the Seeds of Gender Inequality
By Lucia Curiel, volunteer, International Labor Rights Forum
On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, as we celebrate all the gains made, we must not forget there is a long road ahead until we achieve equality for working women, especially in agriculture.
A recent report by the FAO, IFAD and ILO states that, “Gender equality is an essential component of sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction.” This proclamation is (in the opinion of this blogger) unquestionably and incontrovertibly true. But yet, there has been and continues to be considerable discrimination against women, manifested in countless ways, and stark gender disparities all around the world.
The FAO, IFAD, ILO report states, “women are disproportionately employed in low-quality jobs, including jobs in which their rights are not adequately respected and social protection is limited.” After years of struggle for equality, men are still awarded more decent jobs than women. Additionally, the report confirms a gender gap in earning, declaring that “women earn less for a given type of work than do men – usually for both wage employment and self-employment.” This is true all over the world, in varying degrees. The variation is true between countries, within countries, between occupations, and even within sectors. For instance, in Ghana women in the same position earn 65% of a man’s wage. Meanwhile, in Mexico, women’s daily earnings are almost the same as men’s daily earnings in avocado production, but only 78% of men’s earnings in mango production.
The report goes on to state that, “agriculture”—where the female workforce is predominately concentrated—“is often the least well-covered sector in the economy as far as national occupational safety and health regulations are concerned.” Thus, labor violations, sexual harassment, and violence are even more common than in other sectors. One Honduran woman working on a melon farm gave real, concrete testimony to such gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and overall indecent work conditions in a report by Equipo de Monitoreo Independiente de Honduras. She stated:
“Conditions for women are difficult. Sometimes I think we would be better off staying at home because of everything that we have to go through here. We are the victims of sexual harassment, the bosses take advantage of us and promise to give us a better position if we sleep with them, and then we can earn more money. Some women feel frustrated because their husbands tell them they are no longer worth anything because their blood is contaminated by the chemicals they use here and because some of them can’t get pregnant anymore. Sometimes pregnant women come to work but when their belly starts to grow they are fired with no rights. They are always yelling at us, and if we go to the bathroom they time us, they take away a day, a month for falling behind, sometimes a month and a half. Babies have been born with deformities and some women think it is because of the chemicals.”
All the above-mentioned discrimination in rural employment leaves women more vulnerable to precarious work. They can access only unstable or informal jobs, and are paid less than men.
Among the most vulnerable of women are single mothers, widows and divorcees who hold weaker bargaining positions. The report cites a study conducted in the 90s, which found that “households headed by female casual workers were among the poorest households. Their children were more likely to be underweight (in 40 percent of the cases compared with 26 percent for other households).”
But though married mothers may be more likely to find more decent employment, standards of decency are pretty low in the agricultural sector of developing countries. Rosemary, a Peruvian asparagus farmworker with a husband and a child was interviewed by ILRF's partner, Asociacion Aurora Vivar and spoke of the miserable working conditions at her former place of work. In 2007, she was fired without warning or compensation for being pregnant. In her statement she describes a typical workday:
We would be out working for 14 to 16 hours a day. They didn’t tell us when our break was. You had to ask for a break, only at the point where you could no longer go on working. The company didn’t give us food and we couldn’t bring food so we all had to buy something inside, including water. Sometimes my co-workers didn’t eat or drink water in order to save money!"
She recalled that, “When there was a lot to produce, I worked all day, 112 hours a week, 448 hours a month more or less, without taking Sundays off, getting paid nothing for overtime because they pay is according to how much we produce.”
At the end of the official work day, when workers go home, women’s start their “second shift” of work attending to the domestic chores of the household and child rearing. Jolene, a South African mother that works on a farm processing dried fruit, recounts her daily schedule:
I start at 7:30am and finish at 5:30pm. I work all year, from January to December. On an average day, I get up at 5:00am, then I start to clean the house, get the children ready, make breakfast, make sure they’ve all eaten, and that they’re ready to go, then I go to work. When work is over I come back home and start to cook the food, then I wash the children, make tomorrow’s lunch and then I can go to sleep. The next morning it starts all over again."
Unfortunately, stories like Jolene’s and Rosemary’s are not exceptions, but rather they are the norm. They, along with other countless other women, work long hours in unsafe environments under indecent conditions because they are not paid a living wage to make ends meet. Large grocery store chains, such as Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Whole Foods, among others, that are directly sourcing from farms in the Global South must re-examine their buying practices and how they impact working conditions in the tropical fruit industry. Women cannot continue to live this way!
And though it is true that women have accomplished huge feats over the years—we have gained the right to vote, enroll in college, and even reached in the presidential palace in some countries— we still have a long way to go and a lot of discrimination to combat and bias to disprove. In the agricultural sector it is clear that men and women are not seen as equals.
At ILRF, we dedicate a lot of time to energy to close the gender gap. Check out our Rights for Working Women campaign to find out more about what you can do to support women workers. The fight is not over but the hope is alive!
For more information on banana and pineapple supply chains, check out the Make Fruit Fair campaign.