Dealing with farm workers amid Covid-19 pandemic

Saturday May 23 2020

aBi’s George Mutagubya inspects a maize farm.

aBi’s George Mutagubya inspects a maize farm. All farm visitors and workers must sanitise before accessing farms during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo by Rachel Mabala. 

By Lominda Afedraru

Full or partial lockdown measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 are affecting almost 2.7 billion workers globally, representing about 81 per cent of the world’s workforce, a recent International Labour Organisation’s report states.

In Uganda, the agriculture sector employs about 80 per cent of the labour force, which is critical during planting and harvesting seasons.

Failure to observe timeliness in the two activities can lead to irreversible production damage throughout the year.

Amid the anti-coronavirus measures like social distancing, staying at home and curfews, most farmers are grappling with how to recruit and manage the seasonally high number of workers necessitated by the farming cycle.

Small-scale farmers represent some 80 per cent of the producers who practise rain-fed agriculture.
Uganda has bimodal rainfall patterns, with the heavy rains falling in the March-April-May season and the short rains in the October-November-December period.

For many small-scale farmers, most farm activities are carried out by one or two farmworkers.
But during planting and harvesting seasons, farmers employ extra workers on casual or piecework basis.

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Casuals are paid at the end of the day while piecework is paid after completion of a given task like loading produce into trucks or offloading fertiliser from vehicles.
Farmworkers, like everybody else, are vulnerable to Covid-19 and would wish to observe all regulations necessary to control its spread.

However, farming is an essential service and if no activities take place on the farm, people will go hungry and animals such as pigs and commercial chickens will starve to death.
Farmworkers receive minimal wages, no benefits and work for long hours.

Hazardous conditions during pesticide application and payment for work done also means they are likely to appear when unwell. This means farmworkers can hide or mask signs of Covid-19 to earn their daily bread.
As much as their welfare concerns us all, farmers have to take precautions when recruiting and managing workers as they also implement the Covid-19 control measures.

Recruitments process
During peak labour seasons, as it is currently during planting, casual workers congregate in strategic places and farmers pick them from there, send a message or make a call for them to report to the farm.

Most of the time the workers come in groups, but this is the time you should encourage them to social-distance and wear face masks while in the waiting areas.
They should also avoid seeking employment if they are unwell, especially when showing some Covid-19 signs like high temperatures, coughing and sneezing.

You can rapidly check workers if they have fever using a thermo-gun.
There is an influx of potential farm workers to rural areas where planting is taking place, but luckily this has not affected labour charges.

Travel ban
Hire workers from the neighbourhood instead of bringing them from distant places, as was the case before the Covid-19 outbreak.

Most casual workers in urban areas have retreated to their rural homes, and, therefore, finding labour may be a little harder, especially in towns.
Therefore, household members can participate in farming activities to reduce the number of outsiders. Housing the workers on the farm minimises daily travel.

Social distancing
Social distancing implies that fewer workers are employed, which might mean they work overtime or in shifts.

It is expected that everybody understands what social distancing is, but this can be enforced by mapping with ropes or tapes the 1.5-metre distance required between individual workers.

Mechanising some farm activities like using milking machines and planters can aid in reducing the number of farmworkers.
Implementing conservation agriculture, which advocates minimal cultivation, as well as using herbicides to kill weeds is another method that minimises human labour requirements.

Other measures
Social distancing should, however, be practised with other measures, including wearing face masks that cover the virus entry routes (nose and mouth). Supplying masks to workers is one way of showing compassion.

Strategically place hand washing facilities (soap and water) from the gate to the eating places.
Disinfection of commonly used surfaces and equipment should also be enforced and simple sanitisers can also be supplied where hand washing is not necessary such as when one is moving from one house to another collecting eggs or watering animals.

Mixing 100ml of surgical spirit with 2ml of glycerine can make an appropriate sanitiser for one person for two weeks.
The two ingredients can be sourced from a supermarket, agrovet or chemist.
In addition to the normal personal protective equipment used on farms, such as gumboots, helmets, overalls and gloves, nose masks should be made compulsory.

Job losses
In this period, sacking workers may be inevitable as the market for some farm produce remains constrained.
You can explore options that maintain employees using a tight budget, such as temporarily lowering salaries, cutting benefits such as transport costs especially when workers are working from home, reducing working hours/days and offering unpaid leaves.

But most importantly, when announcing the measures, show compassion and maintain contacts with laid-off workers just in case there is a need to reinstate them.
If workers have to leave for good, giving them recommendation letters will assist them in their job hunting. Most importantly, pay them their dues.

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