1 October 2012

Africa: A Changing Climate for Trade Unions and Agriculture?

As climate change makes agricultural employment increasingly precarious, trade unions could have a big role to play.

With climate change increasingly altering weather patterns and environments, it is likely that developing countries, those who have contributed the least to the problem, will suffer its worst impacts.

Agriculture in particular will be affected, with potentially serious implications for food security, poverty and employment. This is likely to open space and relevance of trade unions, but whether they stand up to these new challenges and opportunities remains to be seen.

The challenges of a changing climate

With weather conditions becoming more extreme, some regions are seeing more intense rainfall and flooding while others experience more frequent drought. The agricultural sector, which employs 65% of Africa's labour force, is particularly vulnerable.

Seasonal changes will affect productive systems and the resources and tools necessary to for successful harvests. Changes in climate could also change water and energy needs as well as the types of seeds and crops which will be economically viable. All of these, in turn, will affect the number of jobs, the seasonality of jobs, the skills required as well as wages on offer. Employment opportunities could disappear or become significantly less reliable, and climate change will present a fundamental challenge to business as usual in the labour market as more workers are pushed into the informal economy.

Trade unions and the informal economy

Informal employment in agriculture tends to derive from small or family farms, where work is predominantly completed by women. The majority are illiterate and lack legal protection, job security and healthcare as well as training and education.

In Ghana, it was from the informal economy that trade unionism originated. This unionism became widespread among agricultural labourers, cooks, motor-drivers, and other artisans, especially after WWI. Ghana's informal sector has existed from as far back as colonial times, but one of the largest expansions of informal work came after the World Bank implemented a structural adjustment programme in the 1980s. But as unionism became consolidated, the majority of members became formal workers. Now, many informal workers still lack the ability to influence policy decisions and conditions affecting their livelihoods.

Trade unions with environmental outlooks?

Climate change could create both new challenges and opportunities for trade unions as agents of participation and collective bargaining. In shaping the debate as well as policies to reduce social risk to marginalised groups, unions can make the case for both the volatility and uncertainty of climate change on employment. Unfortunately, however, many trade unions have yet to address climate change and may not been seen as obvious stakeholders for policy and discourse around the issue.

One union that has is Ghana's General Agricultural Workers Union, recognising that the informal agricultural sector is where the greater percentage of the labour force is located. It remains to be seen how they will equip themselves to manage the expectations of workers and anticipate changes that are as yet not fully clear.

Trade unions will increasingly need to engage in climate change issues by building the capacity of their members in the face of increasing climate variability. Adaptation to varying rainfall patterns as aquaponics (in which fish and plants grow together in one integrated, soil-less system) and hydroponics (the cultivation of plants in nutrient solution rather than soil) could help position agricultural workers to adapt to new farming conditions and needs.

Advocacy and awareness building will also need to be matched with defined strategies to ensure that individual well-being, not just the macro-economy, remains the centre of the debate and action. This will potentially place trade unions at the centre of debates on environmental rights, justice and equity.

Hans Awude works for the General Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU) of Ghana as a Programmes Officer. Mr Awude has also worked as a Research Assistant at the Rural and Sustainable Development Department of the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG), Poverty Group, UNDP, located in Brasilia, Brazil. He is currently a Masters Student in Development Economics at UNICAMP in Brazil. He can be contacted at hanswuud@yahoo.com.

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