Women's work: In Mexico, protecting migrant day labourers who feed the country
06 August 2021
It is 5 a.m. and Ceferina Apreza, a 30-year-old migrant day labourer, or jornalera, begins her day in southern Jalisco, Mexico. She and her family live in a shelter and work in vegetable and sugar cane fields. They live and work alongside other jornaleras families from different parts of the country, mainly from the south of Mexico.
For Ceferina, the chores begin by waking her son and three daughters and getting them ready for school — harder now because of the pandemic. She prepares breakfast, and cooks the food she will take to the field. She gets ready for work, grabs her hat to shield herself from the sun, and packs in a handkerchief to wipe away her sweat and use as a mask to protect herself from the dust.
She and almost 30,000 other women in Jalisco are dedicated to agricultural work — planting, harvesting, and packing fruits and vegetables so that they reach the tables of thousands of families in Mexico and abroad.
Few protections for women
Women agricultural jornaleras migrate from their places of origin in search of work opportunities. But the work is often informal, leaving them without employment contracts, fair wages, health services, childcare services, pensions, maternity leave, paid vacations, Christmas bonus, and other legal benefits.
Only 3% of the agricultural day-labourer population in Mexico, men or women, has a written contract and 91% have no access to any employment benefit whatsoever, say government statistics.
The gender gap is enormous. In Mexico, only 3 in 10 women jornaleras working in the fields are remunerated for their work, according to a 2015 government study. That figure is up to a third less than their male counterparts, even if women work the same number of hours.
In addition to working in the fields, women jornaleras, like many women in other sectors, are responsible for the care of the family and the home, working double and triple shifts of unpaid work. When and if they get a break depends on the crop: in the harvest period for sugarcane, for instance, they work even on Sundays.
For a family whose source of income is agricultural work, food should be accessible. However, for Ceferina and her family, their only guarantee are the leftovers from the harvest. The rest of their food must be bought elsewhere. But the low wages they earn are not enough, which in turn affects her and her family’s nutrition.
The informality in rural areas not only has an impact in the form of unfair wages, but also permeates other spheres such as education and health. Given that there are few formal contracts, access to Social Security is minimal. Only some workers are registered in the Social Security system (IMSS), and those who are lodged can make use of it only during the harvest season. Once it is over, workers are discharged even if they continue to perform other tasks in the same fields. Getting sick means having to go to private hospitals or pharmacies offering medical care. Getting sick reduces their already scarce economic resources.
Closing the gaps, so women won’t fall
Given the vulnerabilities that jornaleras face, the United Nations system is promoting social protection through a joint programme called "Closing Gaps.” Funded by the United Nations Joint SDG Fund, the programme is implemented by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women,) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
The expanded social protection strategy will enable women agricultural jornaleras to know, demand, and exercise their labour, health, and education rights. It will also enable companies and the government to enact policies and programmes to guarantee the exercise of these rights.
If rural women had the same access to agricultural resources, education, and markets as men, then fewer people would go hungry.
Ceferina wants more people to recognize this essential work.
“Let them see the work and effort that we (women jornaleras) do, because it is not little, it is a lot,” she says. “We are here working for Mexico, working to improve it.”
A version of this story was published in Spanish on the FAO in Mexico website. Editorial support by Paul VanDeCarr, Development Coordination Office. For more information on social protection, please visit: the Joint SDG Fund. To learn more about the results of our work in this area and beyond, please visit the UNSDG Chair Report on DCO.