Farmers’ associations would not exist without their grassroots members.
Article 14 of the Farmers Association Act (農會法) stipulates that “each farm household may have only one membership of a farmers’ association.”
This rule originates from the regulations that governed agricultural and industrial associations when Taiwan was under Japanese rule.
There are several reasons why this Japanese-era regulation was preserved in the Farmers Association Act.
First, in the old days farmers were relatively poor, so the authorities did not want to burden them with high expenses on membership dues, business capital and agricultural extension funds. For this reason, it was decided that it would be enough to have one member per household, with other household members still enjoying the same services.
Second, in those days a large proportion of the population worked in the farming sector. The rule was meant to make it easier for farmers’ associations to manage their memberships by avoiding a situation in which every person involved in farming could join an association, which would lead to a big increase in membership and make association elections hard to handle.
Third, in the past, some farmers operated on a very small scale, being mostly family operations in which the head of the household was the main producer.
However, many years have passed since then and these factors, which were valid in a certain historical context, have largely ceased to exist. For example, farmers’ incomes are much higher than they used to be, and the proportion of the population engaged in farming is much smaller.
Given these changes, problems have gradually emerged in relation to the “one household, one member” system.
The first problem is that, because only one person from each household can join a farmers’ association, no other member of a household can join until the original member gives up or loses their membership. This means that associations do not get many fresh members, while some people who are engaged in farming cannot join up.
According to figures compiled by the Ministry of the Interior, at the end of 2015, the average age of people insured under the Farmers’ Health Insurance program was 68.26. This shows the extent to which the associations’ memberships have aged.
Young farmers not being able to join associations not only infringes upon their rights, but also prevents farmers’ associations from operating as well as they otherwise could.
Because older farmers are generally relatively poorly educated, they tend to have a relatively poor grasp of management concepts and are not well qualified to take part in associations’ regular business or make decisions about such matters as business plans.
As a result, it often happens that the operations of farmers’ associations are entirely in the hands of their chairpersons and general managers.
The second problem is that, because only one person can join an association and men are traditionally responsible for matters outside the home, it is usual for a male member of each family to represent it in the local association.
This tends to cause an imbalance in the gender structure of association memberships and restricts women’s opportunities to take part, which is not good for gender equality or the expression and reflection of diverse opinions.
According to figures published in this year’s annual report on farmers’ associations, women last year accounted for just 32.49 percent of full members of farmers’ associations, so there are more than twice as many male members as female.
This does not reflect the reality that, as many working people leave the countryside to find work and farmers increasingly seek part-time employment in other professions, rural women have become important providers of agricultural labor. It is therefore important to respect women’s right to take part in the business of farmers’ associations.
Another problem is that, because there is only one member per household, people with ulterior motives find it relatively easy to mobilize votes for elections and ensure that they get elected.
Japan and South Korea used to have the same policy of allowing one member per household, but as time went by, they gradually relaxed this restriction.
Civic groups are supposed to be voluntary organizations, so eligible farmers should be able to join farmers’ associations on a voluntary basis. Only by giving more people the opportunity to take part can associations become more transparent and play their proper roles more effectively.
Of course, membership in farmers’ associations should still be strictly limited to people who are really engaged in farming. People cannot be allowed to join just because they own farmland, or associations might no longer perform their proper function.
The question of whether the number of association members per household should continue to be limited merits examination and consideration by agricultural policy departments. These departments should work out and suggest legal amendments that allow farming associations to be infused with fresh vitality, thus giving this century-old institution a new lease on life.
Chen Po-chi is a professor in Chung Hua University’s Department of International Business.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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