Published: 03/04/2020

On March 31, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) jointly called for coordinated international action to keep international food supplies flowing across borders in the COVID-19 crisis – including the unimpeded flow of the migrant workers who sustain global agriculture. The IUF has written these bodies to highlight a supremely irresponsible defect in their appeal for “responsibility”: the total absence of advocacy for action to protect the lives, safety and livelihoods of the agricultural workers on whose labour food security depends.

In an April 1 letter to the FAO and WHO, the IUF emphasizes that in the COVID-19 crisis food security, worker health and safety and public health converge. With borders closing and markets collapsing, these agencies are now discovering that workers normally considered ‘unskilled’, exploitable and disposable are in fact essential. Yet they fail to draw the necessary conclusions. Protecting food security requires coordinated action to protect food workers, including the nearly 500 million women and men working for wages on farms of all sizes, plantations, in orchards, greenhouses and in livestock and dairy production.

“Substantial, open-ended funding from national governments and international institutions must be made immediately available to ensure adequate protection and safe work for agricultural workers as an elementary measure for saving lives and protecting public health and food security”, we wrote. Urgent efforts are needed to ensure that workers have access to proper housing, with space for quarantine and social distancing while sleeping and eating, potable water and proper sanitation facilities on and off the job, free health care, safe transport, safe work practices and income protection. “These protective measures are all the more urgent in a situation where large numbers of inexperienced workers risk being thrown into agricultural work for which they are ill equipped and risk economic and social predation in addition to dangerous work practices and unsafe housing and transport.”

These long-overdue measures, the letter emphasizes, are not new; they are based on ILO standards. Cooperation and coordination between the ILO, FAO and WHO is vital. Protecting the health and safety, incomes and social security of workers along the entire food chain are as essential for protecting food security as they are for protecting public health. Joint action is urgently needed, the letter concludes, and the IUF and our member organizations claim the right to active participation at every level.