A growing call for organisation

Since September last year, IIED, Hivos and collaborating institutions have held a travelling series of four provocative seminars to take a deeper look at how we can make markets work for small-scale farmers. While each ‘provocation’ has focused on a different aspect of the debate — from how to support producer ‘agency’ to the potentials and pitfalls of rights- versus market-based approaches — there are common messages emerging.

Article, 02 June 2011

One of these is the need for organisation. In The Hague, Stockholm and Paris we heard the call for more support to producer organisations through which small-scale farmers can have a voice, and influence, in the market. And this call was re-iterated at the latest provocation ‘Making markets work for smallholders or wage labour?’ — held in Manchester, United Kingdom, last week, in collaboration with The University of Manchester.

The key question, according to Sue Longley of the International Union of Foodworkers, is not how do we make markets work for smallholders or wage labourers, but how can these groups make markets work for themselves. The answer, she suggested, is through trade unions, associations or farmer organisations. “We have to work with smallholders and agricultural workers to give them the power to shape their own future,” she said.

A route to power

Smallholders can gain a lot of power if they can organise and represent themselves, said Nick Pyatt from organisational change consultants TwentyFifty.

Many smallholders are excluded from big modern markets because as individuals, they lack negotiating power, said Sukhpal Singh from the Indian Institute of Management. In India, only five per cent of farmers are members of organised groups, he said. “We are talking about completely individual farmer based management... which definitely cannot compete with other market players.”

Organisation doesn’t necessarily have to be on a large scale. “People make a mistake in thinking that smallholders need to be in large cooperatives,” said Wilfred Kamami, head of agribusiness Wilmar in Kenya. He described how small, registered groups of around 20 smallholders are working together effectively to discuss production schedules, expand activities, negotiate contracts and make their own rules for supplying flowers to Kamami and, through him, to European customers.

Negotiating a better deal

Organisation is equally important among agricultural wage labourers. A lack of association among agricultural workers means they have no collective bargaining power and find it hard to improve wages or working conditions, said Longley.

[flickr-photo:id=5075935915, class=left, size=m, caption=Wage labourers are often the least rewarded sector of society (Credit: Flickr/Gates Foundation)]

Many other participants at the provocation agreed. “Too often, agricultural wage labour is the least rewarded, least respected and least empowered sector in many countries,” said Peter McAllister from the Ethical Trading Initiative. “Ensuring an organised voice for workers so that they can negotiate for reasonable conditions is vital if agricultural jobs are to be a promise of something better,” he added.

Unorganised workers also find it hard to prevent harassment and exploitation. Women in seasonal contracts are particularly vulnerable, said Longley. “If you want your contract renewed, you sleep with the foreman.”

But the very nature of wage labour — its feudal character and the isolation of agricultural workers — makes it hard to guarantee them their basic right of freedom of association.

It is here perhaps that development NGOs can help. By building awareness among agricultural workers of the power that comes with organisation, by lobbying the government for institutional support and by supporting agricultural workers, both men and women, to get organised.

By the end of the afternoon, it was very clear that whether we’re talking about smallholders or wage labourers, our efforts to reduce rural poverty will be limited without organisation.

The share of market value that reaches the rural poor depends on the terms of either employment, for farm workers, or trade, for smallholders. And improving these terms relies on organisation, be it of labour or of producers.