Bitter Harvest

Supply Chain Oppression and the Legal Exclusion of Agricultural Workers

Persistent exploitation of farmworkers is a defining problem of our time. An estimated 32% of the global population is employed in agriculture. At the base of global food systems, agricultural workers sustain the world’s population while systematically excluded from labor rights protections. Through an analysis of restrictions on labor rights for agricultural workers in 110 countries, this Article distills a typology of legal exclusion that persists to date across the globe. These exclusions articulate labor exploitation at the base of agri-food supply chains and economic and social hierarchies constructed by race, caste, indigeneity, gender, and migration status. How can we upend this legal architecture of oppression, rooted in racialized and gendered capitalism? The global understanding advanced in this Article is critical to dismantling legal architectures of oppression. At the national level, it provides a framework for identifying and addressing layered mechanisms of legal exclusion in particular jurisdictions. Moreover, since agricultural supply chains operate globally, it provides important guidance for protecting workers’ rights on agri-food supply chains, including through binding due diligence legislation in headquarter economies of lead firms, enforceable brand agreements, and inclusion of labor rights in food safety and environmental standards. Finally, due to the structure of monopsony capitalism, in order to raise the floor for agricultural workers worldwide, legal exclusions must be ratcheted up across jurisdictions. Global analysis, then, provides a roadmap for strengthening international standards and global campaigns.

* Research Fellow, Copenhagen Business School. I am grateful for feedback and collaboration on the initial framing of this project from Svetlana Boincean, Jeffrey Boyd, Lance Compa, Jacob Horwitz, Sue Longley, and JJ Rosenbaum. Research for this project was supported by GLJ-ILRF and the New School for Social Research, Zolberg Institute for Migration and Mobility. By studying the ex-clusion of agricultural workers from labor rights through a freedom of association lens, this research seeks to address imbalances in information and power by producing research that strengthens advoca-cy to advance labor rights for agricultural workers. Initial stages of this research were conducted in my capacity as Research Director at GLJ-ILRF in close consultation with the IUF—an international trade union federation made up of 423 affiliated trade unions in 127 countries representing over 10 million workers—and published in an advocacy report to the ILO issued by IUF and GLJ-ILRF. See Shikha Silliman Bhattacharjee, 100 Years of Advancing Freedom of Association: ILO Convention 11’s role in promoting rights for agricultural workers (2021). This research has been used in advocacy at the Civil Society and Indigenous People Mechanism (CSM) counter-mobilization to the UN Food Systems Summit, and in ongoing IUF advocacy with the ILO Standards Review Mechanism Tripartite Working Group (SRMTWG).

The full text of this Article is available to download as a PDF.