On Enforcement

Labor laws are only as good as their monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. I was reminded of this the other day when reading an article in the South African Sunday Times, which stated that the grocery chain Woolworths was investigating claims of abuse and unfair labor practices on one of its supplier farms. After describing workers’ numerous allegations and the owner’s denial, the Times asserted that after they had posed questions to the owner, management hastily asked some workers to sign employment contracts. The article concluded by noting that the Department of Labour “said labour inspectors would conduct inspections at the farm shortly to ensure it complied with the law.”

Now, that’s nice that the Department of Labour plans to get involved, but it’s a bit late for them to be truly effective. Particularly since the Times has already pointed out efforts by management to cover up discrepancies. Has the Department of Labour not considered that many labor abuses can be hidden if the owner has enough prior warning? (And if workers are too scared to tell the truth?)

I am sometimes asked what my number one recommendation is for improving labor conditions on farms. In many places, what is most desperately needed is simply for the government to enforce its laws. For example, when I was researching working conditions on South African farms, I noticed that labor laws were fairly comprehensive, and the main problem was that the government was not able to enforce them properly. There were two main reasons for government’s enforcement failure. First, the government simply did not have sufficient resources – at the time, there were only 107 labor inspectors in the Western Cape, responsible for covering working conditions in all workplaces in the province, including factories, offices, and approximately 6,000 farms. This laughably small number of inspectors meant that most farmworkers I spoke to had never even seen a labor inspector. Second, the Department of Labour had reached an agreement with the main farmers’ lobby under which labor inspectors would make prior arrangements for all on-farm inspections. Farmers and government officials argued that they were motivated by concerns for safety and efficiency. Yet providing prior notice also enables farmers to manipulate labor inspections, for example by removing certain farmworkers from the farm before inspectors arrive or by instructing farmworkers on what to say.

Enforcing labor laws in the agricultural sector is so critical that the ILO has even devoted an entire convention to agricultural labor inspections. Convention No. 129 requires ratifying governments to establish an inspection system for agricultural labor, and underscores basic practices that should be undertaken. One of the most simple is ensuring that there are sufficient numbers of labor inspectors in agriculture. Labor inspectors should also be empowered “to enter freely and without previous notice at any hour of the day or night.” In other words, agreeing to give prior notice of inspections is not a best practice. Although not well ratified, the Convention still provides a useful compilation of standards for agricultural labor inspections.

Many countries do not have the resources to staff and fund an effective labor inspectorate, however, requiring us to think more creatively about how to ensure that employers follow the law. One interesting model has been developed in Sweden, where unions have the right to send their safety representatives onto nearby farms to monitor health and safety conditions. A similar “roving safety representative” scheme has been started in certain South African provinces.

This model, developed through collaboration between the government, unions, and employers, is a promising start to filling in the gaps left by labor inspectorates. Of course, the model requires strong unions with somewhat amiable relationships with employers, something that isn’t to be found in many places around the world. An even greater impediment is that safety representatives in these schemes are prohibited from addressing working conditions that not related to health or safety, which limits their utility. Yet if there were a way to expand the model and its scope, think of the potential:  a way to harness outside resources to provide more effective monitoring of labor law implementation. Not a perfect solution, but a start.

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