Giving children back their youth
Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all child labour
12 June 2007, Rome - Putting an end to child labour in agriculture must become a political priority, FAO said today on the occasion of the UN World Day Against Child Labour.
“It is simply unacceptable that every day 132 million children 5-14 years of age are forced to work the land, often in unhealthy and hazardous conditions,” said José María Sumpsi, FAO Assistant Director-General for Agriculture and Consumer Protection.
“The true winning strategy against child labour is to reduce poverty in rural areas of the developing world, offering income opportunities, addressing health and safety in agriculture, improving pesticide management, and ensuring sustainable development,” Sumpsi added.
Children account for one third of the agricultural work force
Quantifying with certainty the exact number of girls and boys working in agriculture is difficult, since child labour is often clandestine and goes unreported in official statistics. A conservative estimate by the ILO states that child labour involves an estimated 218 million children worldwide - 70 percent of them in agriculture. That amounts to one third of the total work force in that sector.
Most studies point to the same root cause of child labour: poverty. Children are obliged to work both for their own survival and for that of their families. Poverty means also a lack of education, poor health services, limited alternative employment opportunities -- all contribute to the problem of child labour.
However, some poor countries have scored notable successes in reducing child labour to the point of virtually eliminating it. India's Kerala state is one such example. The Latin America and Caribbean region has also shown noteworthy declines in the overall number of child workers, from 16 % to 5% between 2000 and 2004. The good news is that the largest decline has been in reducing by 26% the number of children involved in hazardous work worldwide in all sectors.
Cheap labour, easy to exploit
One common justification cited by unscrupulous employers for using child workers is the so-called “nimble fingers” argument - small hands are better at delicate tasks such as picking flowers and tea leaves, or tying knots in fine carpets. "But studies by the ILO in hazardous industries like glass production or diamond polishing have shown this not to be the case,” noted Mr. Sumpsi. “In agriculture, as in other sectors, there is no work that an adult cannot do equally well, if not better, than a child," he added.
"The simple truth is that children require fewer guarantees, are far easier to exploit and -- most of all -- are considerably cheaper. They do the same work that adults do, but are paid much less," Sumpsi said.
Harsh, hazardous conditions
Agriculture, together with mining and construction, is ranked as one of the three most hazardous employment sectors.
Deprived of the possibility to go to school and to play, with no solid learning and experience behind them, no precise instructions, no prior knowledge regarding safety measures and often using tools designed for larger adult hands, children are particularly vulnerable to the occupational hazards involved in agriculture, forestry, and fisheries and in processing, transporting, and marketing of food and agricultural produce.
And exposure to toxic pesticides and other chemicals, carrying heavy loads, and long working hours can have lifetime implications for a child's healthy growth and development. More often than not, the children of child workers are also trapped in poverty, perpetuating the cycle.
How to define child labour?
Still, not all work carried out by children can be categorized as “child labour.” Light jobs that do not interfere with school attendance are deemed acceptable at 12-13 years of age, as is work not defined as hazardous by youths of 15-16. "Child labour" according to ILO conventions, refers specifically to work that damages the health of a child, prevents school attendance and which could block future growth and development.
“Participating in one way or another in household subsistence activities, especially if it doesn't involve heavy or dangerous work or interfere with schooling, is perfectly legitimate and can be important for developing the skills needed to succeed as farmers, fishers, and forest users later in life. Instead child labour that harms, abuses, exploits or deprives a child of an education is inexcusable. If all child labourers in agriculture were to occupy a country of their own, it would be the eighth largest country in the world,” said Eve Crowley of FAO's Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division.
“Yet eliminating the most hazardous and exploitative forms of child labour is within our reach,” she said. “Today, we must break the wall of silence and indifference that surrounds this phenomenon. We must make sure that the ILO conventions are ratified and implemented, and that from this day on, world action to counter the worst forms of child labour in agriculture gains momentum. "
Today a new partnership to tackle child labour in agriculture was established in Geneva by FAO, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP), the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
Media Relations, FAO
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