A Human Rights Perspective On Wages

Last week, the South African Labour Minister announced a 52 percent increase in the minimum wage for farmworkers. The government’s decision followed months of farmworker protests and strikes in the Western Cape, a province that provides key exports of fruit and wine. Starting March 1, farmworkers must be paid at least 105 rand ($11.77) per day. Many of them, toiling nine hours a day under harsh conditions, currently earn a minimum wage of less than a dollar an hour.

The main South African trade union federation, COSATU, “cautiously welcomed” the increase, describing it as a victory for farmworkers that nonetheless failed to meet their demands for 150 rand/day. The principal farmers’ lobby, Agri SA, argued that the new minimum wage would have “drastic implications” for the farming sector, referring ominously to its potential impact on food security. The Employment Conditions Commission (ECC), which advises the Minister of Labour on minimum wages, acknowledged that the new wage still does not meet the basic needs of most farmworkers, but stated that a greater increase would negatively affect employment. The ECC referenced a finding that “the gap between what farmers can pay and what workers require to make a basic living is large, and a creative policy framework together with extremely efficient management on farms is required to avoid shedding of jobs in agriculture.” (The ECC’s full report can be downloaded here.)

Poverty wages in the agricultural sector are a global problem
Poor farmworker wages are by no means an issue unique to South Africa. Around the world, farmworkers consistently earn among the lowest wages. Whether it is in the tobacco fields of Kazakhstan, the flower fields of Kenya, or the strawberry fields of Spain, one constant is workers’ relatively low levels of remuneration.

Even in the United Kingdom, where the soon-to-be-abolished Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) has historically protected farmworkers with wages slightly higher than the minimum wage (we’re talking 2 pence more per hour), lower farm wages are imminent. The government estimates that dismantling the AWB could result in the transfer of hundreds of millions of pounds from workers to business in the next ten years through lowered wages and benefits. (The government also reckons it will save money over the long term by not having to enforce the agricultural minimum wage.)

In my home country, the United States, farmworker wages are appallingly low. Under the law, farmworkers must be paid at least the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25/hour. However, a number of factors can reduce farmworkers’ earnings. In particular, many farmworkers are undocumented workers with few employment options, and thus vulnerable to exploitation by employers or labor contractors. Additionally, most farm work is seasonal, creating regular periods of unemployment. Oh, and small farms are simply exempt from the minimum wage requirement.

Further compounding the problem, many farmworkers in the U.S. are paid on a piece-rate basis. Although in some cases piece-rate payments can increase farmworkers’ earnings, this system can also have negative impacts (including incentivizing child labor). In Florida, the piece rate for tomatoes is about 50 cents for every 32 pounds of tomatoes picked – which means that a farmworker must pick more than 2.25 tons of tomatoes a day in order to earn the minimum wage. (For years, Florida-based farmworkers and their advocate allies have been campaigning to get buyers to pay a “premium” of one penny more per pound. One penny!) And although federal law requires that employers pay the difference between piece-rate payments and the minimum wage if workers do not pick enough to earn the minimum wage, this often does not occur. Given all these factors, it’s no surprise that the U.S. government has found that “[p]overty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees.”

What does human rights law say?
International human rights law does not explicitly use the term “living wage,” but it comes pretty close to requiring one. Most relevantly, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) guarantees the right to work, and recognizes “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work.” This includes remuneration with “fair wages” that provides all workers with “a decent living for themselves and their families.” (Articles 6 and 7.) The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explains in General Comment No. 18 that this is a “right to decent work” that, among other things, “provides an income allowing workers to support themselves and their families.” The Committee also explicitly states that the right to decent work extends to agricultural workers.

This “decent work” that “provides an income allowing workers to support themselves and their families” sounds an awful lot like a living wage to me. Distilled down, a living wage is generally defined as a wage that supports a basic, and decent, standard of living. A more robust definition explains that a living wage is one that “enables workers to meet their needs for nutritious food and clean water, shelter, clothes, education, health care and transport, as well as providing a discretionary income. It should be enough to provide for the basic needs of workers and their families, to allow them to participate fully in society and live with dignity.”

(Let’s pause here to note that living wages and minimum wages are not the same. Most governments set minimum wages, requiring employers to pay at least a certain amount to employees. However, these minimum wages are often not calculated to ensure that workers can earn enough to support themselves and their families with dignity. Living wages are thus almost always higher than minimum wages, though a government could set a minimum wage that is also a living wage.)

I am not alone in saying that the right to work requires, in essence, the payment of a living wage. A 2011 ILO publication even goes as far as saying that the “international community clearly considers living wage as a human right.” The ILO piece notes that, aside from the ICESCR, ideas similar to a living wage can be found in other international and regional instruments, including the European Social Charter and the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as in some national constitutions. (See the report’s Appendix A, Tables 1-3, for a comprehensive list.) In addition, the Preamble to the ILO Constitution explicitly urges an improvement of working conditions, including “the provision of an adequate living wage.”

General concepts do not provide specific clarity, however, and discussions of living wages often are thwarted by the lack of a universally accepted method for calculating them. I’ll talk next week about this problem and how it inhibits accountability, as well as some possible solutions for moving forward.

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