Sandiford Edwards, MA, MBA, ACCA – Guest Contributor
In the context of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) such as Caribbean countries, historically, the agriculture sector provided the single most important platform for employment, income generation and food security, and is presently still capable of driving poverty reduction especially in rural areas; through increased productivity, value addition and links to other sectors inclusive of tourism.
‘Agriculture Employment’ or ‘Agriculture Labour’ in its traditional view has been defined as the ‘involvement of any person in connection with cultivating the soil, or with raising, harvesting any agricultural or horticultural commodity, management of livestock, bees, poultry’ etc. In today’s world, cognisant of advancement in cultivation and harvesting technologies, processing innovations and the proliferation of the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Big Data and the consequent impact on the agriculture sector, it is prudent to recognise that a modern and more accurate definition of agriculture labour should include professional careers along the entire agri-food value chain, covering disciplines ranging from scientist, greenhouse growing specialist, agronomist, inter alia.
Current Agriculture Challenges
CARICOM’s agriculture is at a critical juncture to meet the food demands and nutritional requirements of the Region, influenced by the countless incidences of agricultural output shocks emanating from climate change impacts, natural disasters, prevalence of pest and diseases, increasing food loss and food waste and increased competition for arable lands by other sectors including housing. Food systems reorientation including the supply of agriculture labour is therefore mandatory in repositioning CARICOMs agriculture in its quest to achieve improved food security.
‘In 2000, the CARICOM Region had an agri-food trade surplus of US $20 million or 2%. Over the last eighteen years, the regional agri-food landscape has undergone significant transformation having agri-food imports of US $3.7 billion (2018) and an annual agri-food trade deficit of just above US $2.2 billion.
Between the periods 2016 to 2018, CARICOM’s total agriculture export growth in value was significantly immaterial when compared to its imports of over US$200 million for the same period (figure 1). CARICOM’s protracted trade deficit places pressure on fiscal positions of Member States and other macro-economic indicators including the ability of the Region to address its high level of unemployment especially among the youthful population and the growing health and economic cost visited to the region by the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).
Figure 1 – Total Agriculture Trade
Source: Author’s compilation
In this regard, the improved recognition of agriculture labour within the Caribbean Community, can directly strengthen the Region’s food security and nutritional adequacy while it is also aptly positioned to: catalyse greater intra-regional travel; reduce community wide unemployment; and improve the cultural and overall regional integration process. Early harvest evidence of the regional agriculture integration process is noticeable with the agreement struck between Suriname and Barbados for the Black Belly Sheep project.
International Market for Caribbean Agricultural Workers
Globally, there appears to be a snowballing call for agriculture workers with heightened demand in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and other parts of Europe. Evidence of the demand for agriculture workers was confirmed through an article where the suggestion was made for British nationals who have been furloughed to get involved in harvesting crops.
The integration of the Caribbean into the world economy was noted to have commenced during the colonial era when the production of agricultural commodities required the exportation of labour from the metropole (mainly English working class) to the colony, to work on plantations to produce predominantly cash crops and other raw materials for export. The sugar revolution which ensued, resulted in the mass importation of African slaves to work on plantations. Following the abolition of slavery and prevailing foreign domination of the ownership of capital and other factors of production except labour, created an excess supply of semi and unskilled labour, which, if left un-utilised could have created instability and major upheavals in the colonies.
The Region therefore began exporting labour en masse, with the exodus of migrant workers heading to the Panama Canal, the gold fields of Venezuela, banana plantations in Central America and the H-2 Programme of the United States.
More recently, the Commonwealth Caribbean Agricultural Workers Program (CCAWP) in Canada, that hires approximately 25,000 foreign agriculture labourer spread over 200 farms as part of a US$100 billion industry, has become the temporary worker programme of choice for Caribbean Agriculture Workers. The CCAWP has been placed centre stage in the Region, receiving greater prominence as global supply chains faced disruption, and the stability of food supplies threatened by ‘stay at home’ orders imposed by countries to address the threat posed by COVID-19 became acute.
Whilst Mexico and Central America dominate the US H-2A Program, a number of CARICOM Member States from Jamaica (the first country to engage in the migration programme in 1966) in the north to Trinidad and Tobago in the south are participants in the CCAWP. These economies benefit from salaries repatriated by the emigrant workers.
Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas and Free Movement of Labour
Article 45 – Movement of Community Nationals provides the basis in Treaty where ‘Member States commit themselves to the goal of free movement of their nationals within the Community’.
Furthermore, in Article 46, Member States have agreed, and undertake as a first step towards achieving the goal set out in Article 45, to accord to the following categories of Community nationals the right to seek employment in their jurisdictions: university graduates, media workers, sportspersons, artistes and musicians.
Having regard to the above, and the huge vulnerability to Regional food security and nutritional adequacy, high levels of unemployment, inter alia, on the occasion of the 18th Special Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government (HOG) of CARICOM, HOG have agreed to include ‘Agricultural Workers among the categories of skilled nationals who are entitled to move freely and seek employment within the Community’.
This declaration by Heads of Government provided the legal basis for the creation of the necessary infrastructure, administrative and enabling environment for the Region to benefit from the vast pool of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labour available for the competitive development of its agri-food sector.
At present, it is not yet clear whether or not the free movement regime for Agriculture Labour has become operational and if in the affirmative, the number of people who have already taken advantage of the Treaty’s provision.
The discussion on creating a regional bread basket and having persons who are in the industry travel to provide the majority of the farm workers holds promise. The CARICOM Private Sector Organisation (CPSO), in a presentation to HOG in February 2020, articulated the benefits of the Region in focussing on the development of regional ‘agri-food corridors’ (RAC) within the CSME, and the ability of RACs to assist in reducing transactions, transport and logistics costs. The presentation further suggested that the RACs can support overriding non-tariff barriers (NTB), and can also be used to develop ‘clusters’ or investment poles that create the business to business and business to customer linkages, which is the oxygen for sustained growth and development of agri-food ventures in the CSME, ultimately yielding greater employment.
A key feature of the RAC is premised on high volume production of selective agri-food products (corn, soy, cassava, livestock) to benefit from economies of scale. Such a philosophy will naturally lend itself to countries with larger land masses such as Belize, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica and Suriname. CARICOM nationals from other Member States can then ultimately travel to these countries as an initial pilot to operationalise the Free Movement Regime for Agricultural workers.
There is no denying that the current image of regional agriculture is one that is cloaked with the stigma of being pro-poor and dominated by the uneducated or citizens who are generally on the margins of society. Drawing from the parallels of the CCWAP, repositioning regional agriculture can provide the citizens of the region with improved consistency of income that can be similarly repatriated to their home states to meet the needs of their families.
Simultaneously, other direct benefits that can be accrued can range from the increase in intra-regional travel, greater consumption of regionally produced food, increased cultural exchanges and deepening of the CARICOM spirit of ‘oneness’.
To this end, regional leaders, the private sector, development partners, and the wider NGO community should collectively agree on a roadmap to aggressively rebrand the image of agriculture to include the modern availability of high-tech jobs to encourage greater youth involvement. Only with additional sector involvement and investment will the region be able to adopt and adapt the plethora of innovative agriculture technology that supports increased productively and profitability, necessary elements for the creation of a virtuous cycle.
Sandiford Edwards, MA, MBA, ACCA is a Development Finance Specialist with experience in many countries in the Region.
 Patrick et al, 2020, Reducing CARICOM’s Agri-Food Imports: Opportunities for CPSO Participation, Econotech Limited.
 Budworth et al, 2017 Report on the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program: Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture Delegation in Canada.