Look at home for farm workers

By Du Yu 杜宇  / 

Tue, Oct 22, 2013 - Page 8

Even before the controversy over allowing Chinese laborers into Taiwan has been settled, agricultural authorities have announced their intention to open up the farming sector to foreign workers. This decision comes at a time when they have yet to propose a comprehensive regulatory framework or supporting measures, and observers are concerned that this could spark another wave of farmers’ protests.

The farming sector has already had its fair share of problems, with non-productive “fauxmers” occupying agricultural land, a string of food safety scares, a lack of sufficient controls and excessive supply sending prices plummeting. Blame for many of these problems have unfairly been placed on farmers.

A closer look at the root causes of many of these problems reveals the government is mostly culpable, because of policy failings, inadequate controls and outdated regulations, coupled with a lack of a comprehensive vision or planning for the the nation’s agricultural sector.

The reasonable response would be for the government to address these failings and not to use the free-market mechanism as an excuse for deregulating farming products in international trade negotiations, an arrangement that is likely to make things even more difficult for farmers.

For example, consider the policy of opening up the sector to foreign labor. Public opinion on this issue greatly differs. Some large-scale agricultural producers have long advocated such a move, citing the difficulty of recruiting workers. However, there are also many who say that opening up the sector to foreign workers would have considerable impact on jobs for domestic workers, especially for middle-aged workers and women.

They are also concerned that this will cause a raft of problems: rising domestic unemployment; farming technology and techniques being taken overseas; and difficulties in managing foreign workers. All of these issues need to be carefully assessed and discussed, and solutions found.

As a stop-gap measure, the government proposed a minimum wage policy to encourage young people to return to the countryside and take up farming in the hope that they would be the next generation of farmers and that the sector would not decline when the current generation retires.

To date, there has been little evidence that this policy has produced any results, and it does seem to conflict with the other policy the government is thinking about implementing, that of allowing foreign laborers to be employed in the sector. The Council for Labor Affairs has also raised objections.

Many farms are small household operations, with limited cultivated acreage and tight finances. They will find it difficult to compete with large-scale operations overseas that have the benefit of economies of scale.

This is why the government wants to attract private investment to restructure the industry and shake up the way it is run, and many policies are now geared toward satisfying the demands of corporate farming outfits. Opening up the sector to foreign labor and Chinese investment is part of this thinking.

However, corporations are mainly profit-driven, whereas farming is a complex mix, entailing production, a way of life and the environment. We cannot rely solely on private investment, large agribusiness and corporations when planning for the future of domestic farming.

The government must implement a comprehensive mechanism to help people transfer to other sectors, so that those with less efficient operations or who want to leave agriculture behind have more options, rather than just letting the smaller farms decline and disappear.

The solution to the dearth of farm labor involves more than simply bringing in more hands from overseas. The government needs to decide first the direction of the industry’s future development and then prepare a comprehensive plan. There are some ways the government can lead.

It can, for example, try to improve work, living and training conditions to challenge the popular belief among young graduates that working in agriculture is only a last resort.

It could improve agriculture training for women in rural communities, so that they could become involved in harvesting, processing, storing, selling and marketing agricultural products, incorporating agricultural reform concepts initially developed in Japan: that of the “sextiary industry.”

The sextiary industry concept refers to farms that are also involved in processing and selling what they grow or raise, and therefore covers more than one sector. With this in mind, they could bring together farming and leisure farms — with hospitality and catering — to create new jobs that are more in line with the dynamic and innovative employment that the younger generation prefer.

And while they are at it, why not combine labor and leisure, providing temporary jobs to local and foreign backpackers, so travelers can spend time in these rural communities and earn some money while they are doing it, at the same time addressing the labor shortage problem.

Farmers’ associations can help by coordinating labor recruitment, integrating various kinds of agricultural businesses to provide long-term employment opportunities for domestic labor, or implement a contract farming system.

A nation’s major policies should not just be hastily improvised. Public policy must both be practical and promote the welfare of the public, otherwise it could spell disaster. This latest policy on recruitment has been announced before assessments have been made, and before adequate measures have been put in place.

It is no wonder that such a spurious policy decision has been criticized, with some even suggesting that the government is deliberately trying to phase out the agricultural sector.

Government officials need to tread very carefully now, and not create another situation in which society gets riled at what they are doing.

Du Yu is chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform.

Translated by Paul Cooper