ILO Conference: Decent Work in rural areas

Some 3.4 billion people, slightly under half of the world’s population, now live in rural areas. Though the great majority live in developing countries and are poor, their situation, along with the impact of climate change, food price rises and other factors are visibly in the news.

Promotion of rural employment and poverty reduction is one of the main topics of discussion at this year’s International Labour Conference meeting in Geneva from 28 May to 13 June. Here are some questions and answers on the state of rural employment today and the key issues for consideration when discussing how to reduce rural poverty through the promotion of Decent Work.

Why is the ILO’s annual conference holding a general discussion on rural employment?

Much has changed since the last discussion took place 20 years ago. The Millennium Development goals (MDGs) call for reducing poverty and hunger by 50 per cent by 2015. Climate change – hardly a factor 20 years ago – is now at the top of the global agenda. Soaring food prices are sparking global debate on agricultural production as well as the use of farm products for fuel. The political landscape is vastly changed, with greater links between governance and economic growth. These factors, coming at roughly the halfway point since the Millennium Summit in 2000, mean that now is a good time to assess progress achieved and examine the challenges that face both the MDGs as well as the rural working population.

How have rural markets changed in the 20 years since the ILO’s last general discussion on this topic?

Two major processes have affected not only rural markets, but the world economy in general. The first is globalization. The costs and benefits of globalization have not been equitably distributed either between countries or within them. The second process is urbanization. In most developed countries close to 80 per cent of the population now live in towns and cities. In much of the developing world, however, a massive population shift is taking place and many cities are struggling to cope with the influx of rural migrants. Clearly, the employment challenges of today’s burgeoning cities cannot be met without addressing the need for full and productive employment in rural areas.

How important is the promotion of rural employment, in general, and of employment in agriculture, in particular, in reducing poverty?

The share of agriculture in total employment worldwide is declining. However, in many countries, agriculture continues to be the mainstay of rural livelihoods, a major contributor to GDP and an important source of export earnings. Agriculture is also the second greatest source of employment in the world – after services – with 1 billion people employed in the sector. At the same time, earnings from agricultural wage labour are low and volatile and opportunities for regular employment appear to be in decline as workers are increasingly engaged on a casual or temporary basis. Decent work deficits in rural employment need to be addressed urgently as the rural population in developing countries will continue to grow, in absolute terms, for another generation.

Evidence shows that agricultural growth is highly effective in reducing poverty. How can this growth be achieved?

A high growth rate tends to create a more favourable environment to achieve employment and poverty reduction objectives, including in rural areas. There are many drivers of growth but the principal ones are capital investment, human capital development, expanding markets through trade and economic integration and good governance. An effective growth strategy requires policies in each of these areas. However, economic growth is a necessary but insufficient condition for promoting rural employment and poverty reduction. Although for many of the poorest countries, the fundamental issue is simply to achieve growth, it is important to remember that the pattern and distribution of growth will determine the degree to which it translates into job creation and poverty reduction.

What impact is climate change having on the rural world?

The Millennium Development Goals incorporated the principle of environmental sustainability as an inherent aspect of poverty reduction. This principle is of particular importance to the rural poor, who through their work in agriculture, forestry and fishing, depend closely on the natural environment for their livelihoods and are highly vulnerable to environmental stress. According to the Fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the impact of climate change will be felt most strongly in developing countries. Research also shows that poverty is associated with unsustainable practices and damage to the environment, so reducing poverty is important to improving the environment in poor countries.

How will the rising world energy and food commodity prices affect rural employment and poverty reduction?

Rising world energy prices have made food production more costly by increasing the energy costs of farming and creating a strong incentive for farmers to switch from food production to fuel production (such as maize for fuel rather than food markets). Furthermore, increased food consumption driven by strong growth in places like China and India and changing consumption patterns such as rising meat consumption (which requires higher volumes of animal feed) have added to price pressures on world markets for food commodities. Climate change is also affecting food supplies with recent climate-related disasters hitting global supplies of wheat, for example. Globalization has brought markets closer and made them more interdependent. Clearly this has a significant effect on both levels of poverty and the distribution of resources.

How important is social protection to the promotion of decent work in rural areas?

Rural areas are characterized by high poverty levels, high informality and self-employment, limited payment capacity for services and corresponding limited service provision – especially in health. Social protection can have a positive impact on several dimensions of decent work deficits and in reducing gaps between rural and urban areas and within rural areas themselves. Yet there is no single blueprint for social protection. Policy design should therefore focus on tackling problems rather than on individual instruments.

Studies show that many rural workers, especially in agriculture, experience severe difficulties and gaps when it comes to international labour standards such as freedom of association, forced and child labour, discrimination, wages, etc. How can this situation be turned around?

There are several options. These may include national-level action. Member States could be called upon to review their legislation with a view to extending the coverage of protection to rural workers, including rural wage earners, and in particular to ensure that they enjoy the protection of fundamental principles and rights at work as contained in the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Another option could be to invite member States to remove any exclusion that may exist in national law concerning the application of the Conventions to rural workers.

Have changes in the political landscape in many countries had an effect on social dialogue in rural labour markets?

Today, the links between good governance and economic growth are widely recognized. Yet in most countries, democratic aspirations may exceed actual performance and the deeper attributes of democratic systems, such as equity, inclusiveness and respect for the rights of minorities, have yet to be realized. Good governance is a work in progress.

What is expected of this ILO discussion?

Globalization and urbanization are two phenomenon affecting the world of work in general and rural employment in particular. But they are just two of many. The intended outcome of this discussion is an analysis of the nature, magnitude and changing patterns of rural employment in the world, with a particular focus on developing countries. The ILO would also like to see a comprehensive strategy to promote employment and decent work in rural areas around the world, as well as an integrated plan of action for the ILO to implement this strategy. National and international political commitment is crucial for this.


1 Response to “ILO Conference: Decent Work in rural areas”

  1. 1 Ayesha June 20, 2008 at 6:59 am

    Here are some facts and figures about child labour :

    According to ILO estimates, there are some
    250 million children between the ages of 5 and14
    years who are in economic activity in developing
    countries alone. For 120 million of them, work is a
    full-time activity. The remainder combine work with
    schooling or other non-economic activities.
    While most child labour is found in the developing
    regions of the world, industrialized countries are not
    entirely free of it either. In Eastern and Central
    Europe, for example, child labour has been
    reappearing in the wake of social and economic
    dislocation caused by the transition to a market
    In absolute terms, Asia, being the most densely
    populated region of the world, has the largest number
    of child workers. 61 per cent are found in Asia, 32 per
    cent in Africa and 7 per cent in Latin America

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