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Economic Precarity, Climate Change, and Mobility - Part I

Updated: Mar 26, 2022

In this new series, CDPI Researcher Azin Emami will establish some of the linkages between climate change, displacement, various forms of mobility, and economic precarity. Part I lays out some of the initial linkages in the context of agricultural workers.

Migrant agricultural workers in the Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada (Source: Maggie MacPherson/CBC News)

  • Climate change is threatening the livelihoods of agricultural and subsistence workers worldwide

  • Labour migration has become an adaptation strategy for many of these communities

  • Although it should not necessarily be seen as a first-resort solution, and is not a viable option for everyone, greater efforts will need to be made to regulate labour migration as it is increasingly used as an adaptation strategy.

Agricultural and farming trends throughout the world are impacted by the rise in global temperatures and extreme weather events, threatening the livelihoods of entire communities. Although not determinants on their own, climate change and environmental degradation constitute one of the overlooked causes of displacement facing agricultural communities throughout the world. Many agricultural workers have left rural areas in search of jobs in cities, but they often end up in peripheral or slum areas, largely invisible to urban planners.

Changes in crop yield and agricultural suitability by 2050 via the HadGEM2 model (Source: National Geographic / International Food Policy Research Institute)

The majority of migration and displacement linked to climate impacts is internal. In certain regions, adjacent or nearby countries with steady labour demands may attempt to draw on displaced people as new recruits for their workforce, though often under heavily curtailed terms which, in some contexts, can lead to both human rights violations and even greater economic precarity. These movements are further complicated by the fact that in several sending countries, there are a plethora of agents and subagents, middlemen and travel providers, officials involved in the recruitment process and imposing charges- some legitimate and some not. As a result, it is not uncommon for migrant workers and their families to go into debt in order to meet the costs of seeking these new opportunities. This is then a major barrier to the earnings of migration in the form of remittances.

In the absence of sustainable jobs, those who escape environmental degradation often end up in environmentally degrading industries. Research is showing links betwen exploitative labour has resulted in deforestation and highly polluting methods of shrimp farming, brick making & gold mining.

One of the purported benefits to labour migration has been the financial security gained through remittances. “The New Economics of Labor Migration,” for example, argues that migration is a household risk management strategy; some members of the household migrate so others can survive in situ through remittances when there are no other social safety nets. Where social safety nets and insurance mechanisms work, affected populations can remain at home throughout the event that might otherwise cause them to move. However, this argument often overlooks the numerous challenges encountered by labour migrants, including low wages and dangerous working conditions. Further compounding the problem, the World Bank estimated that remittances would fall by about a fifth in 2020 from $714 billion to $572 billion, as a result of the global pandemic. This only adds to the precarity of environmentally displaced persons who have turned to labour migration as a means of securing livelihoods.

Those who remain in rural areas continue to face challenges. Human-trafficking is an extreme form of exploitation and in many instances involves forced labour. This form of exploitation tends to increase after natural disasters or conflicts where large numbers of people are displaced from their homes and become highly vulnerable. In the decades to come, climate change will very likely lead to a large surge in the number of people who are displaced and thus vulnerable to trafficking.

In our upcoming blogs in this series, we will examine the linkages between climate change and precarious labour. Using numerous examples, we will show that much greater attention must be placed on the linkages between various forms of environmental displacement and labour migration. Indeed, as economic conditions and -- post COVID-19, possibly worsen -- it will be increasingly important to ensure that these linkages are well understood and greater emphasis is placed on migrants' rights in general, and labour in particular. Governments around the world must prioritize the creation of regenerative, resilience-building economies that, even after acute shocks, are oriented to increase long-term sustainability and adaptive capacity. At the same time, societies that are in a migrant-recieving context, like Canada, must ensure that relying on migrant labour to do essential economic work (such as care, construction, and agriculture) does not perpetuate extraction, precarity, and isolation for the workers on the move.

Stay tuned as we dig deeper into these topics in future blogs!

Written by CDPI Researcher Azin Emami, with editorial support from George Benson.

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