Tag Archives Agriculture

EADI/ISS Series | Two faces of the automation revolution: impacts on working conditions of migrant labourers in the Dutch agri-food sector

by Tyler Williams, Oane Visser, Karin Astrid Siegmann and Petar Ivosevic

Rapid advances in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are enabling production increases in the Dutch agri-food sector, but are also creating harsh working conditions as the sector remains dependent on manual labour, while implementing new technologies. To ensure better working conditions for migrants forming the majority of manual labourers in this sector, ‘worker-friendly’ implementation of new technologies is necessary to limit the negative effects of the automation revolution.


The ‘Threat’ of Automation?

Decades-old debates about the extent of job loss induced by the automation revolution were re-ignited by the seminal work of Frey and Osborne (2013), who suggested large numbers of jobs would be replaced by automation. Where jobs are not lost, automation impacts labour conditions as facilities are geared towards the optimal use of new technology. Novel ICTs offer possibilities to increase labour productivity and to free workers from harsh and repetitive tasks (OECD 2018). Yet they also enable high levels of remote, covert monitoring and measurement of work, often resulting in increased work pressure and the risk of turning workplaces into ‘electronic sweatshops’ (Fernie and Metcalf 1998).

Ever since Keynes (1930) warned about “technological unemployment” in his essay ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, tech innovations have been eliminating jobs across sectors (e.g., in manufacturing), while simultaneously leading to the creation of new types of work (e.g., machine engineers). However, the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ (Schwab 2016) currently taking place might differ from earlier ones: automation is accelerating, affecting a wider variety of jobs, and is now also penetrating sectors like agriculture. Likely candidates for new automation waves are ‘3D jobs’ (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) which are overrepresented in agriculture and often performed by migrant workers (manual mushroom picking, for example, which is physically demanding and carries myriad other risks like respiratory issues). Therefore, this sector – understudied in research on automation – deserves attention.

Farm Robots and Migrant Workers

‘Milking robots’, drones, and (semi-)automated tractors have appeared on farms in the U.S. and the EU. As the second largest exporter of agricultural products and the ‘Silicon Valley of Agriculture’ (Schultz 2017), the Netherlands is at the forefront of such innovations. Yet despite this position, Dutch agriculture still depends strongly on manual labour, as the complexity and variability of nature (crops, animals, soils, and weather) have hampered automation.

Technological innovation and the recourse to low-paid, flexible migrant labour in the Dutch agri-food sector both represent cost-saving responses to the increased market power by supermarkets (Distrifood 2019) and the financialisation of agriculture. A FNV (Federation of Dutch Trade Unions) representative asserted: “Employers see those people as machines […]. Employers need fingers, cheap fingers, if I may call it like that”[1].

However, an educated migrant workforce provides benefits to employers beyond ‘cheap fingers’. The majority of labour migrants from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the largest group of migrant labour workers on Dutch soil (CBS 2019), hold a post-secondary education (Snel et al 2015: 524). As the Dutch are reluctant to do the low-paid 3D jobs, agriculture depends heavily on migrants from CEE countries, especially from Poland (Engbersen et al 2010). An estimated 30 percent of all CEE migrants in the Netherlands work in agri-food, contributing almost 2 billion euros to the country’s GDP in that sector (ABU 2018).

While technology can and does assist in and accelerate the harvesting process, this educated workforce can flexibly perform manifold tasks like identifying and communicating inconsistencies in products or processes to their supervisors, including plant illness, irregular production, etc. This makes them invaluable in improving agricultural production processes and output[2]. However, their working conditions remain precarious. Consequently, grasping the impact that technological innovations have on agriculture necessitates studying transnational labour.

To this end, ISS scholars – with the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) – initiated a research project titled ‘Technological change in the agro-food sector in the Netherlands: mapping the role and responses of CEE migrant workers’. So far, it has included interviews with organisations in the agri-food sector, trade unions, engineering/labour experts, and migrant workers; this formed the basis for the MA theses of Petar Ivosevic and Tyler Williams. First results were discussed during an ISS workshop with practitioners in December 2018, and a follow-up workshop will be held on 17 March 2020. In addition, two sessions on the topic will be organised at the 2020 EADI Conference taking place from 29 June to 2 July at the ISS.

Industry versus Workers

To date, the benefits of automation for industry and farm workers are highly unevenly distributed. For example, technologies such as (semi-)automated LED lighting allow for more crops to be grown indoors, accelerating crop growth and extending the growing season. This benefits the agricultural industry and supermarkets by leading to all-year production. It also initially improved agricultural labour conditions: workers received a more stable, year-round income and a reduction in time spent working outdoors in difficult weather conditions. However, these improvements also brought negative consequences for labourers. The workweek increased (from 40 to roughly 60 hours – occasionally 80 hours – per week), and smart LED-lighting technologies, sterile environments, and novel ways of conserving heat and humidity created harsher working conditions (cf. Pekkeriet 2019).

Moving Forward

 How can decent labour conditions for (migrant) farmworkers be ensured while further automation of agricultural workplaces takes place? First, further research involving (migrant) workers themselves, growers, and other practitioners is needed to inform policy. So far, policy debates on the future of agriculture have paid only scant attention to (migrant) workers and labour conditions. Farm labour ‘shortages’ in agriculture are often narrowly and one-sidedly discussed in terms of supposed ‘unwillingness’ to work in agriculture per se or the tendency of CEE migrants to return to their home countries where economic growth has picked up. Such a position ignores the harsh (and often insecure) working conditions or postulates them as a given. It strongly underestimates the (potential) role of ‘worker-friendly’ implementation of new technologies and decent labour conditions in shaping the quality (and attractiveness) of farm work. Support from Dutch labour unions – which have started to organise and include CEE migrant workers – could increase migrant workers’ voice. Insecure, dependent work arrangements, language problems, and fragmentation of the migrant workforce have thus far impeded migrants’ own collective action. Finally, food certifications in the Netherlands primarily target food safety and sustainability. Including social (labour-related) criteria would reward farms with sound labour conditions[3].


[1] FNV Representative. 18 June 2018, interviewed by Karin Astrid Siegmann and Petar Ivosevic.
[2] Municipality Westland Presentation, World Horticulture Centre, 19 February 2019.
[3] For instance, the pillar of fair food in the slow food manifesto includes respectful labour conditions.

This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.


Photo-Tyler-image1About the authors:

Tyler Williams recently completed the ISS MA Development Studies’ track in Migration and Diversity and co-organised the abovementioned workshop.

 

Foto-OaneVisser-Balkon-1[1]

Oane Visser (associate professor, Political Ecology research group, ISS) leads an international research project on the socio-economic effects of and responses to big data and automatization in agriculture.photo-KarinSiegmann-fromISSwebsite

 

Karin Astrid Siegmann is a Senior Lecturer in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), studying how precarious workers challenge marginalization of their labour.Photo-Petar-image1

 

Petar Ivosevic graduated from the ISS MA program in Development Studies in 2018, with a major in Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies.

 

Right-Wing Populism and Counter-Movements in Rural Europe by Natalia Mamonova

Right-Wing Populism and Counter-Movements in Rural Europe by Natalia Mamonova

Right-wing populism has gained high levels of support among rural population in Europe. ...

A green revolution using frugal innovation: crop insurance for Tanzanian farmers by Meine Pieter van Dijk

What is the best way to help traditional small maize farmers in Tanzania to increase their production? A crop insurance project in Tanzania showed great success in decreasing the vulnerability of these farmers to drought through a simple frugal innovation called Weather Index Insurance. However, a transition from traditional to hybrid seeds is recommended to further decrease vulnerability and increase agricultural productivity.


What is the best way to help traditional small maize farmers in Tanzania to increase their production? Droughts occur more frequently in Tanzania, but the core problem is low agricultural productivity. Local extension services are not functioning properly (Lamek, 2016), while farmers are still using traditional seeds instead of hybrid seeds, which could contribute to achieving food security in the country. A non-commercial private sector initiative is helping these farmers by providing crop insurance. Between 2011 and 2014, the Swiss Capacity Building Facility (SCBF), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) financed by ten Swiss insurance companies, funded four training projects in Tanzania aiming to familiarise maize farmers in the Iringa, Mwanza and Arusha regions with crop insurance.

No new technological options were introduced to reach as many farmers as possible at minimum cost. Instead, the project used a Weather Index Insurance (WII) based on existing satellite images to determine whether drought prevailed in the area concerned during the seeding, germination or ripening period. If the signal is less rain than normal, the farmers registered through their mobile phones are compensated for the damage, ideally by topping up the amount available for calling or making mobile phone payments. This is a frugal innovation (using existing technology), because farmers can insure as little as one bag of hybrid seed bought from the seed company (SeedCo) using their telephone, covering only the germination period), or through signing up for a package for one acre of land through NGOs.

The training projects were carried out by Acre Africa (AA), an international NGO, with a local affiliate (Acre Tanzania). The project contributed to the training of thousands of farmers in the three regions studied. In total, more than 20,000 farmers are insured in the Iringa region and more than 10,000 in the Mwanza and Arusha regions taken together.

Assessing Weather Index Insurance

To assess the effects of Weather Index Insurance for Tanzanian maize farmers, a survey has been undertaken by the author in the Arusha, the Mwanza and Iringa regions. A total of 200 farmers were interviewed using cluster sampling with the villages as sampling units and then selecting farmers’ households per village as randomly as possible. The objective was to analyse the effects of the crop insurance introduced with the support of SCBF on household’s income and assets and on agricultural productivity.

Different ways of supplying insurance were compared. Farmers supported by a local NGO, the One Acre Fund (1AF), showed that insurance is particularly useful if it is embedded in an institutional support structure that is non-commercial and close to the farmers; not using a profit-oriented intermediary (SeedCo) or a combination of a commercial and non-commercial organisations also led to greater success. All modalities re-insure the final risks with a local commercial insurance company and a re-insurance company.

Most farmers did not know how much they pay for the insurance, but were generally positive about it, since the insurance offers a feeling of security and the intermediary organisations reduce the loan in case of a crisis. However, some farmers were critical because no payments were made despite limited rains, or the payouts were too low. They wanted support to find better markets for their produce and more transparency concerning payouts.

Transition from traditional to hybrid seeds required

Supporting the transition from using traditional to hybrid seeds is recommended to increase rural incomes and food supply and contribute to food security in the country. It is important to select the intermediary carefully and to consider crop insurance as part of support package, which should also include fertilisers and additional inputs like pesticides and access to water. There is scope for making the innovation more frugal by really using only mobile phones for registration and payouts, which was currently not always the case. There is demand for this service from other regions, for other crops and risks (like caterpillars). More information and training should be provided to farmers and the insurance needs to be made more transparent. Complaints of farmers should be taken seriously.


An extended version of this article has been published on researchgate: “Going for hybrid maize: the importance of land for the success of maize crop insurance in Tanzania”. Contribution to a World Bank conference on Land and Poverty, Catalyzing innovation in Washington, March 25-29, 2019.


References
Wilfred Lamek (2016) Agricultural extension in Tanzania, PhD, Free University Amsterdam.

Image Credit: ICRISAT on Flickr.


About the author:

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Meine Pieter van Dijkis economist, em. professor of Water Services Management at UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, visiting professor at the Beijing University for Civil Engineering and architecture, and em. professor of Urban management at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and the Institute of Housing and Urban development Studies (IHS) of Erasmus University.