Extending social security to agricultural workers

Agricultural workers

Module content

Nearly half of the world’s population, more than three billion people, live in rural areas. In many countries, rural areas play a significant economic role. Around 28 percent of the people in employment are estimated to work in the agricultural sector, which amounts to nearly one billion people around the globe. Many of them work in the informal sector of the economy (93.6 percent) with variable and often low income, and a largely insufficient social protection coverage.

This module highlights the specific challenges of extending social security to agricultural workers and explores some policy options, based on international experience and guided by ILO social security standards. 


Key questions

  •  What are the specific challenges with regard to including agricultural workers under social security legislation?
  •  How can agricultural workers be included under social security legislation?
  •  What else needs to be considered when aiming at including agricultural workers under social security legislation?


Main barriers

  •  Legal exclusion: in some countries, the main labour legislation might exclude workers in the agricultural sector, or at least some categories of workers in this sector, or they might be subject to a separate legislation, which often provides for a lower level of protection.
  •  Administrative barriers: in the absence of local offices in rural areas, registration might become challenging and expensive, which represents a geographical barrier to accessing social protection services. These difficulties are aggravated when workers move from one sector of the economy to another or from paid employment to self-employment. Such labour mobility may prevent workers from receiving benefits even when they contributed in the past, especially if the administration does not have the capacity to keep track of the changes.
  •  Low and fluctuating income: agricultural workers often have very low incomes, which limits their capacity to contribute. Payment of contributions may also be aggravated linked to the seasonality of the harvest and subject to idiosyncratic or covariate shocks.
  •  Lack of enforcement and control: labour administration may not dispose of sufficient human and other resources to inform, assist, and inspect remote agricultural enterprises. Lack of enforcement and control can also arise from difficulties to locate workers, to follow up on their membership and to ensure compliance with the scheme due to frequent labour rotation.
  •  Lack of information and organization: agricultural workers are less likely to organize due to the remoteness of their work and living place. They may also lack sufficient information/knowledge about social security schemes and procedures, and may have difficulty understanding legal provisions due to illiteracy and language barriers.

Possible solutions

Extending legal coverage
  •  Including agricultural workers under the general social security legislation and schemes to ensure adequate coverage independent of their employment status, or to ensure adequate coverage in situations when workers combine (part-time) employment with self-employment, or implement specific legislation
  •  Adapting the regulatory framework to take into account these characteristics, especially their income.
Facilitating access to social protection and lifting administrative barriers 
  •  Facilitating registration and enhancing the access to administrative procedures for agricultural workers, including the facilitation of physical access through mobile social security offices, reducing the need for supporting documents and simplifying other procedures.
  •  Developing integrated service delivery mechanisms, such as one-stop-shops, to improve access to social protection for the self-employed, especially in rural areas.
  •  Extending administrative and service delivery structures to rural areas, ensuring that people in rural areas effectively access the (health care, education, financial) services and infrastructure.
  •  Facilitating access to social security through collective registration agreements with agricultural and rural workers' organizations (trade unions, cooperatives or rural producers' associations).
Facilitating contribution collection and collection mechanisms 
  •  Allowing for the payment of contributions according to seasonal patterns and greater flexibility with regard to the temporary reduction or interruption of contribution obligations in the case of shocks.
  •  Facilitating the payment of social security contributions through a more flexible financing mechanism in terms of timing, or  allowing contributions to priority branches of social security, and introducing differentiated contributory provisions or unified social insurance contributions.
  •  Adapting the way contributions are determined, redefining reference earnings, using contribution categories or considering alternative reference incomes other than earnings.
  •  Considering subsidizing (part of) the contributions, especially those with the lowest  income.
Enhancing compliance and facilitating inspections 
  •  Facilitating inspections of agricultural workers, allocating more resources to inspection services.
  •  Raising awareness and promoting compliance through preventive measures and combining corrective measures with information-sharing and awareness-raising.
Raising awareness and sharing information 
  •  Raising awareness among agricultural workers on the importance of social protection, available schemes and benefits and related procedures.
Strenghtening incentives for formalization through linkages with other policy areas  
  •  Linking social protection policies and strategies in the rural economy to other policy areas, to improve access to public and private services in rural areas and to promote employment-intensive investment in infrastructure.
  •  Fostering and supporting organization and voice of rural and agricultural workers.


Key messages 

  •  The extension of legal coverage to agricultural workers needs to be complemented by additional measures to ensure effective coverage of agricultural workers, to allow flexibility in the timing and amount of contributions, to facilitate registration and administration, to adapt labour inspection mechanisms to the specific situation of agricultural workers, and to inform agricultural workers about existing schemes and how to access them.
  •  It is essential to assess the special needs and gaps of agricultural workers and to adapt the schemes to their specificities, in particular those of women working in agriculture and rural areas.
  •   Developing and implementing integrated and coherent policies: it is important to link social protection policies with other policies, for instance to promote employment creation, enhance access to credit, especially for women and youth, improve food security and nutrition, improve occupational safety and health, reduce child labour in agriculture and ensure effective application of labour standards.