Impact of COVID-19 on daily labourers and rice commercialisation in Ethiopia (2)

In the second of a three-part blog series, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research researcher Agajie Tesfaye examines effects of COVID-19 on labour wages, service providers to labourers, rice production and the future implications on rice commercialisation. Check below for the other two blogs of this series:

Part one: Preliminary findings and statistical analysis of research assessments on this topic.
Part three: Seven key recommendations on how the Ethiopian government can lessen the negative impacts of COVID-19 restrictions on day labourers, and rice farmers.

Read more on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Ethiopia in the Round One and Round Two APRA country reports.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Written by Agajie Tesfaye

Effect of COVID-19 on labour wages

Some farmers without working age family members depend on hired labourers coming from surrounding areas. These labourers have their own accommodation, and tend not to go to labour markets in towns. Employers look for them in villages, and also source them through networking.

Labourers from nearby villages are not available in adequate numbers and cover no more than 10% of demand. The supply shortage in the face of high demand has pushed their wage rates up. In the last seasons, their daily wage used to be in the range of 80 – 120 Birr ($2.25-3.38) per person per day (Agajie et al, 2019). However, this wage has now increased to 120 – 150 Birr ($3.38-4.23) per day, a rise of 25 – 50%.

In Fogera rice plain, it appears that wage rate was not as such an issue at this critical time of season, but it was the availability which is a serious issue. This was because, farmers could incur massive losses compared to the costs of labour. Even the wages of women labourers – lower in past seasons – has now became equal with their male counterparts.  

Map showing Fogera town. Source: Map data @2020 ORIEN-ME, Google.

Effects of COVID-19 on service providers to labourers

COVID-19 has impacted not only incomes of daily labourers, but also on livelihoods of service providers. Room rent service providers, brewers, local restaurants, bars, pubs and others were largely dependent on daily labourers. They were also established to service the needs daily labourers who came from a distance. 

These services centres were identified as hotspots for the transmission and spread of COVID-19 due to their small spaces. Consequently, District Police Officers have passed orders to suspend service provision until the situation improves. This has caused substantial decline in their incomes and seriously threatens their livelihoods.

Accommodation was a major problem faced by labourers. Before the pandemic, many labourers had been renting rooms in groups with small payments on daily basis. However, the District Police prohibited such rent providers to suspend their services. One of the Police Officers said to these service providers:

“You are only chasing your benefits at the expense of the life of these poor people…you are packing tens of labourers in one room, which is dangerous in spreading Corona. If you have economic problem, the government will support you…Therefore, stop…until the virus recedes”. 

Police officer, in discussion with service providers

In addition to the above restrictions at labour markets, the inability to get accommodation was another key reason why labourers went back to their home villages, an issue present during the early months of COVID-19 in Ethiopia. Households who depend on daily incomes have therefore been largely affected by the pandemic.   

Effects of COVID-19 on rice production

COVID-19 has not yet substantially impacted the rice sector. This is because acute labour demand season is yet to come until mid-August. In response to difficulty obtaining daily labourers, the farmers have taken two corrective measures: Firstly, farmers who previously relied on hired labour are using family labour for the first planting and weeding of rice. This included well-to-do households.

The second measure was the use of weed sprayers on rice fields. However, chemicals killed rice as well as weeds on up-lands with no flooding. Farms in flood plains were less affected due to the chemical mixing with floodwater.  

Farmers are still optimistic that labourers will arrive for the second weeding in mid-August – a critical period rice production. One of the farmers described as follows:

“If we are not still able to get daily labourers at the time of critical needs, there is nothing we can do other than trying all our best using our family labour and leave the rest for weeds to invade the field or shatter out there. You see, we normally used to spend 12,000 – 13,000 Birr ($338-366) per annum to hire daily labourers. You can imagine the extent to which we have been dependent on hired labour”.   

Farmer in Fogera Plain

Farmers planted many rice plots, fully expecting to acquire labour when the demand is high.  Rice production and productivity will be heavily compromised if farmers cannot secure labour in time for the second weeding.

A study in India in the rice-wheat farming systems indicated that reverse migration of agricultural workforce (back home) and social distancing due to COVID-19 revealed that a delay in the transplanting of rice seedlings by two weeks is likely, which will also delay rice harvesting and consequently delay in planting wheat. It was estimated that this will potentially to rice and wheat production loses of 10 – 15%, worth up to USD 1.5 Billion (Emma, 2020). Even though the extent of loss might vary, Fogera farmers will also lose a substantial quantity of rice if labour shortages continue to be a problem in fear of COVID-19 spread. 

Future implications of COVID-19 on rice commercialisation

Ethiopia is still in a state of emergency until August and it is hard to predict how the situation will change. As COVID-19 positive cases and death toll rises, it will continue to impact labour markets and other economic sectors. If farmers do not get labour for critical weeding and harvesting, rice production and marketable supplies will be largely reduced. This in turn will affect the rice processing sector in later months. Discussions with rice processors indicated that the pandemic has not yet impacted the processing sector, but that there will be impacts after the harvesting season.

It was estimated that farmers will reduce the area allocated to rice by 40 – 50% in the coming seasons if labour markets continue to be deserted as a result of COVID-19. This also means that rice production could decrease by a similar amount. The incomes of farmers and further investments on rice will also drop. This all will lead to decline of rice commercialisation in response to prolonged persistence of COVID-19 in the country.

Cover photo credit: Elias Damtew / ILRI.

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the #COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected in coming weeks but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.