chapter  6
19 Pages

Labour in globalized agricultural value chains: Lee Pegler, Karin Astrid Siegmann and Sietze Vellema


Some academic writings as well as agency and practitioners’ discourse assume that insertion into global value chains (GVCs) creates development benefits (e.g. UNIDO 2006). In terms of labour outcomes and the development debate, the phrase ‘trickle down’ has now largely been replaced by assertions that social pressures on transnational corporations may lead them to ‘ratchet up’ labour standards or cause a ‘cascading down’ of norms of good production behaviour towards those less ‘responsible’ (Sabel et al. 2000; Knorringa 2007). Yet thus far, this optimistic view has rarely taken the conditions of workers explicitly into account (Coe et al. 2008). Empirical studies that do focus on workers in GVCs often reveal that insertion is not necessarily associated with the guarantee of labour rights (Knorringa and Pegler 2006). A number of studies on inclusion and upgrading in globalized production networks reveals low labour standards and rising uncertainties concerning livelihood conditions at the beginning of diverse chains, ranging from horticulture to sporting goods to textiles and clothing (e.g. Barrientos et al. 2003; Barrientos 2008; Dolan 2004; Nadvi 2004; Pegler 2009; Riisgaard 2009; Siegmann 2006, 2008). While Knorringa and Pegler (2006) list general conditions for insertion and upgrading which may be expected to also generate benefits for labour, the mechanisms leading to such outcomes remain unclear. This chapter strives to develop a theoretically informed explanation of three cases of agricultural value chains from complementary theoretical perspectives, largely inspired by historical materialism, in order to locate the role of labour in the logic of global chain governance. Historically, agricultural production for subsistence has chiefly been based on the use of family labour. Under colonialization, slave and later waged indentured labour was employed on plantations for the cultivation of cash crops for the markets of the colonizing powers. These structures of labour organization are reflected in modern cultivation of horticultural and non-food crops. Contract farming is a more recent form of internationalized agricultural production that spread to developing countries after World War II. This chapter’s examples of

agricultural labour organization correspond to important modern hybrids of the aforementioned forms of cultivation based on family, waged and contract farming. For example, studies in South-East Asia confirm that smallholdings in contract farming schemes are not actually family farms, but rather small-scale or medium-scale enterprises hiring wage labour (Vellema 2002; White 1997). For Latin America, Kay (2008) relates the increase and feminization of agricultural wage labour to the greater importance of export-oriented agriculture, something also noted by others for parts of Africa (Dolan 2004). Despite the significance of wage employment in agricultural value chains, their dispersal and general informality means that work and livelihoods in these chains are less visible than those in manufacturing to stakeholders such as trade unions, labour-related NGOs and the concerned domestic governments. The cases of the authors’ own research outlined in section 6.3 may not represent the full range of varieties of labour organization in internationalized agricultural production. They do, however, underscore our argument that a similar logic of accumulation in agricultural value chains results in agricultural workers’ marginalization, despite diversity in labour arrangements. This chapter takes a theoretical approach informed by labour process theory (LPT) and the perspective of social structures of accumulation (SSA) to investigate the intrinsic conflict over labour costs and control in labour-intensive production (Blowfield 2005). LPT explains our focus on how control, workers’ bargaining power and the politics of production are related to developments such as the segmentation of tasks and the prevalence of uncertain, piece-rate pay systems. The SSA perspective exposes the ‘quasi-bonding’ of particular sociodemographic groups to specific tasks, hence creating an artificial oversupply of labour and competition amongst workers. Combined, these approaches reveal how dynamics in local labour markets become part and parcel of work at the beginning of GVCs. They also offer an explanation for meagre wage levels, informalization and insecure working conditions. Our observations suggest that LPT and SSA will continue to be useful frameworks, as they are capable of bringing out realistic, but not deterministic, patterns in capital-labour relations within a global panorama of organizational complexity in agricultural production. Both perspectives also contribute to the overall themes addressed in this volume, with labour process theory providing a stronger focus on the inner workings of chain governance and the social structures of accumulation perspective supplying an employment-focused lens on embeddedness and endogenous development. We aim to contextualize the organizational forms of workplaces, labour processes and workforces in GVCs. These can be partially explained from the internal logic of GVCs related to production and marketing, in socially differentiated labour markets embedded in the historical processes of accumulation. The chapter is structured as follows. Section 6.2 summarizes the above-mentioned strands of theory with the aim of understanding the role of labour in the logic of capitalist production. Section 6.3 outlines three case studies of agricultural value chains, namely asparagus farming in the Philippines, tomato production in Brazil and cotton cultivation in Pakistan. It also zooms in on outcomes for

workers at the beginning of the chain. Section 6.4 discusses the emerging image produced by these case studies in light of the theoretical perspectives. Section 6.5 concludes that the rise in flexible work arrangements and the resulting income and social insecurity of workers in the global South are outcomes of shifts in the risks of production coordination to marginalized actors within global value chains. This process also underpins capital accumulation within the chain.