Skip to main content

The climate emergency demands that we recognise workers’ rights

From smallholder farmers to climate refugees, workers in our supply chains are amongst those already most affected by climate breakdown.

This article will follow the path a climate-dependent worker might take from a smallholding or plantation, where work has become increasingly difficult, to a factory, fishery or farm where they face ongoing exploitation.

Climate-dependent work

Around the world, millions of people rely on the land and other climate-dependent resources for their livelihoods. For smallholder farmers, agricultural workers and many others, the ecological crisis, therefore, threatens their way of life and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation from global markets and employers.

Falling yields and smallholder farmers

As increasingly extreme weather patterns emerge, food production around the world is threatened. In the last year alone, wildfires in Australia, drought and cyclones in Somalia, erratic weather patterns across the Mediterranean and flooding in the US have caused crop failures. Climate change is making livelihoods increasing uncertain, including for many of the farmers that produce our food.

Smallholder farmers already often face unfair trade relations . The drive for profit and a race-to-the-bottom on prices in the global north means that often they receive little for their work. A cocoa farmer, for example, is paid between 3-7% of the final chocolate price.

"Cocoa prices are disastrous. When a farmer gets up in the morning, he is always worried: how will he be able to feed and take care of his family? How can he send his children to school?" Ebrottie Tanoh Florentin a cocoa farmer in Cote d'Ivoire told the Fairtrade Foundation. Deforestation in West Africa, including across Cote d’Ivoire, could reduce rainfall there by 40-50%, placing further stress on these farmers.

Unfair prices have left many smallholders without a safety net when crops fail. A bad season can leave them without any income or sustenance. As harvests become less certain, workers need to be paid a fair share for the produce that is grown.

Unfair prices have left many smallholders without a safety net when crops fail. A bad season can leave them without any income or sustenance. As harvests become less certain, workers need to be paid a fair share for the produce that is grown.

Sadly, as conditions become more desperate, producers’ bargaining power is also eroded, meaning that climate change will leave them in an even more vulnerable position.

Already, this is being seen in rural India. Droughts in Andhra Predesh in India have forced smallholders to hire drilling equipment from wealthier farmers so that they can access water. Often unable to pay up front, they instead promise to act as unpaid labour, leaving them in a position of debt bondage.

Agricultural workers and poor conditions

Those employed on larger plantations or farms as labourers also face worsening conditions. For centuries, such workers have faced serious violations – from poor wages and precarious employment to working conditions that have permanant health costs.

As harvests increasingly fail, seasonal and other workers could be left without employment, because they have no permanent contracts or salary.

For those still in work, conditions are likely to become harsher too. Plantation workers - from tea pickers in Bangladesh to tomato pickers in the USA - are often paid by weight rather than for the hours worked. This kind of precarious employment means that scarce harvests will translate to a fall in income.

Yet, many of these workers already receive far less than they need to meet their basic living needs. As days get hotter, productivity also goes down and wages fall further.

Workers are often expected to continue in these dangerously hot conditions or in the face of much more extreme weather patterns. The number of deaths amongst these workers each year is expected to rise.

image: weighing tea plantation
Climate-dependent producers weighing tea. The weight of what is picked in a day can determine how much a labourer is paid for a day's work.

Between 1992 and 2016, more than 783 workers in the US died and more than 69,000 suffered serious injuries due to heat exposure, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. The figure is expected to rise. Those that lack labour protections or risk being laid-off for speaking out, such as migrant workers, will be most at risk.

Women farmers

Women farmers, both on smallholdings and plantations, are likely to be amongst the worst affected. According to Oxfam:

"Women farmers are highly vulnerable to climate change because they are often dependent on climate-sensitive livelihoods, have unequal access to productive resources such as land, and have less of a support system to fall back on in times of crisis."

Forced into exploitative employment

Many are therefore being forced out of their traditional ways of working and into other industries, where employers and multinationals exploit the influx of new labour.

Sweatshop labour and climate migration

Climate breakdown is pushing people to cities and urban centres. Soon it will be the biggest global driver of forced migration, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. As more workers arrive in need of work, employers can often offer increasingly low wages and poor conditions.

Dr Ashok Kumar, whose work specialises in global production networks and industrial relations, explains:

“If you are a migrant you can be exploited more easily, as you have either no workplace rights, or are terrified to assert them.”

Faced with so many workers desperately in need of an income, employers can erode standard conditions. At the same time, labourers become less able to organise and collectively bargain, due to the fear that they will simply be replaced if they speak out.

Migrants “confront a dire lack of workplace protection”, according to the International Labour Rights Forum.

Many industries have exploited these facts. Sweatshop factories depend on just such histories of urban migration and are notorious for their unsafe conditions and exploitative wages and hours.

Again, it is often women, with fewer options for employment, who pay the price. 80% of sweatshop workers are female, and many are undocumented migrants leaving them even further unable to respond.

Climate breakdown is already contributing to this situation. It is causing many to leave their villages in countries like Bangladesh and find employment in urban garment factories instead.

image: bangladesh sweatshop fashion climate migration

Each year, Dhaka, the capital, grows by more than 400,000 migrants from rural areas. Many of these migrants, particularly the women, will join the garment industry, which already employs 4 million of the city’s workers. It has long been known for its shocking labour conditions, epitomized by the Rana Plaza disaster in 2010.

In 2010, Mukhles Rahman, who was working as a security guard at a garment factory, told the New York Times:

“We are trying to find another place to go, because all the land back home is dissolving.”

Supermarket vegetables and climate migration

It is not only our clothing that is produced from such exploited migrant labour. For the last year, Ethical Consumer has been running a campaign with SOC-SAT, an agricultural union in Almeria -- ‘the plastic-sea’ of Southern Spanish greenhouses where many of our salad vegetables and soft fruits are produced.

Migrant workers there are often paid well below the minimum wage; they live in ‘shanty’ housing, sometimes provided by employers, without running water or electricity; and they face extremely dangerous conditions. Last year, a worker died after over exposure to agrochemicals.

The migrant workers are largely unprotected and many (around 30%) are undocumented, making them even more vulnerable.

“In reality, there are a lot of us who’ve left Africa because of climate change,” Spitous from Senegal says, although he explains that the link isn’t always immediately evident or well understood.

“We say we’re here because there’s no work in our countries... [but] we’ve left because it doesn’t rain anymore.”

Child labour, slavery and brick kilns

Elsewhere, climate change is forcing children into work at a young age.

In Nepal, changing rainfall patterns are threatening those that rely on agriculture, pushing them to migrate seasonally for work instead. Entire families move to work in brick kilns for several months, under enormous pressure to earn as much as possible before monsoon starts.

The kilns rely on a form of seasonal debt bondage, whereby the families are offered an advance at high interest rates in exchange for work in the kilns. Sometimes, the labour of children is pledged by parents in an attempt to repay the loan.

Sadly, such links between bonded labour and climate change are seen all over the world.

Those migrating from Cambodia and Myanmar due to the loss of farming opportunities face forced labour in the Thai fishing industry. Out of desperation to cross the border, migrants often use illegal channels and accrue large debts. In return for paying these off, they are offered work in the fishing industry and once there are subjected to violence and abuse, facing threats of torture or death if they leave the boats.

The fish caught is then used as fish food for prawn farms – the products from which have been sold in our supermarkets.

"I thought I was going to die," Vuthy, a former monk from Cambodia told The Guardian in 2015. He was sold from captain to captain.

"They kept me chained up, they didn't care about me or give me any food … They sold us like animals, but we are not animals – we are human beings."

The story is the same for others that rely on the land and its resources. In many cases, these communities either face increasingly harsh working conditions or the complete loss of their livelihoods and way of life.

Image: Albacore tuna unsustainable

Enabling sustainability

Tragically, many of these exploitative industries also play a role in environmental degradation.

The Thai fishing industry for example ensures the continued decline of fish stocks and the collapse of marine ecosystems. Brick kilns in Nepal, Cambodia and Bangladesh contribute to air pollution and GHG emissions. And the agricultural sector is responsible for 11% of CO2 emissions worldwide.

What this also means, though, is that addressing exploitation and environmental degradation can come hand in hand.

For example, where farmers are paid a fair price they are more able to trial more sustainable or climate resilient options. Such experimentation has a cost attached - whether due to the need for new equipment such as seed or because of the risk that the trial will not succeed; so only by offering fair conditions can farmers be empowered to make such change.

Just Transition

It is not just farmers that need to be empowered to respond to a changing climate. Trade unions and civil society point out that many labour intensive industries will have to change in coming years, both in the UK and abroad.

“The voices of workers who are at the forefront of dealing with the challenge of climate change must be at the centre of achieving a successful transition to the economy we will need.”

Putting workers at the centre of the process recognises that they are in a powerful position, if properly supported, to demand and direct change within their industries. It will also ensure that they don’t bear the cost of the necessary shift.

This concept is often referred to as a ‘Just Transition’. Championed by labour unions and environmental justice groups, rooted in low-income communities of colour, it recognises the importance of workers alongside those of frontline and fence-line communities.

Sharing the transition cost

It’s these workers that have often been sidelined in other transitionary periods.

Trade unions and civil society must now work to address the risk to workers as we move to achieve global net zero targets. Their aim should be to replace, rather than replicate systems of power and injustice that for centuries have exploited workers and placed much of the cost of transition on women and communities of colour.

As the Climate Justice Alliance states: “Transition is inevitable. Justice is not.” For these reasons, the climate emergency demands that we recognise workers’ rights.

Free Issue

Sign up now to our email newsletter for a free digital copy of Ethical Consumer magazine.

Sign up now for our email newsletter