Giving farm workers a voice

The heavy and poorly paid work in the seed sector is done by small farmers and farm workers in Asian countries. Mondiaal FNV contributes to strong trade unions in South Asia that are committed to decent and dignified work and food security.

Child labour & unprotected spraying

To provide food for the growing world population, seed breeding is becoming increasingly important. Dutch companies play a crucial role in this, as they have a lot of the work, such as testing and producing vegetable seeds, done by small farmers and farm workers in Asian countries. This is heavy and poorly paid work, in which excesses such as child labour and unprotected spraying with dangerous pesticides occur. We are committed to achieving decent work with a focus on organising the farm workers into strong unions.

What does the work look like?

The work is physically demanding, and is often done in high temperatures. Entire families participate, with women being paid less than men, or even not being paid at all. Child labour is still common. Often the land belonged to the farming families themselves, but in many cases they were unable to make ends meet, and sold the land to large companies, which then let the former owners remain as contract workers. In some instances, the farmers sign a contract stipulating that all supplies must be bought from the company, and the harvest may only be sold to the company. As a result of this system, many people are in debt because they have to buy seeds, fertiliser, and tools from the seed company, while burdened with the risk of crop failure. Income is so low that people are starving. Trade unions are on the rise, but the degree of organisation is low, and good collective agreements are still lacking.

How does the sector work?

Ten multinationals account for at least 85 percent of global seed production. Companies based in the Netherlands, such as Enza and Syngenta, are among the biggest. They are located in West Friesland, which is referred to as Seed Valley. This is how it goes: A seed, for example from a new variety of cucumber, is developed in the Netherlands, tested in Asia, brought back to the Netherlands for perfection, and ultimately produced in Asia. The sector is growing strongly in Asia, but the revenues are very unevenly distributed. It is a bitter irony that the companies eventually export some of the seeds back to the countries where they were tested and produced, but they are unaffordable for the small farmers. Because the seeds are sterile, they have to be purchased new every year. As a result, the farmers use poorer quality seeds, fall into poverty, are forced to sell their land, and end up as poorly paid contract workers of… seed companies.

Our goal

Mondiaal FNV contributes to strong trade unions in South Asia that are committed to decent and dignified work and food security, and that pay attention to gender, the welfare of children, the environment, and the climate.

How do we operate?

We are working towards our goal in three ways:

  • Strengthening unions. Active and inclusive trade unions are crucial in improving the position of workers in the seed industry. The degree of organisation must be increased and women must be better represented. We help unions to lobby and negotiate more effectively, and to investigate abuses. We encourage the formation of regional platforms and alliances, so that unions and employees can become stronger in their dealings with companies and governments. For that reason, we also establish direct lines between Asian unions and Dutch seed companies and unions.
  • Putting pressure on seed companies and industry associations. They must respect national laws and regulations, and negotiate with trade unions as regards more decent work and conditions along with living wages, with a special focus on the position of women and children. The companies are being asked to stop using toxic pesticides and to switch to growing climate-resistant seed crops. When making agreements about sustainability, such as in the form of covenants, we ask them to pay specific attention to the rights of workers.
  • Addressing national and regional authorities. We urge them to respect basic labour standards, both through laws and regulations and in practice, such as through the better monitoring of seed-breeding operations.

In which countries do we operate?

India and Nepal.

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