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Shedding light on child labour in fisheries

Workshop examines underlying causes, makes recommendations

Photo: ©FAO/P. Johnson
Child worker drying fish in the sun to preserve them.

10 May 2010, Rome  – More attention should be paid to the plight of child workers in the fisheries sector, according to a group of experts convened by FAO and the International Labour Organization (ILO) in order to shine light on this often-overlooked problem.

"Worldwide, 132 million girls and boys aged 5 to 14 years old work in agriculture — this figure includes children working in fisheries and aquaculture," says Rolf Willmann, of FAO's Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. “But because child labor in fisheries is so widely dispersed in small-scale and family enterprises — or is actively hidden by employers — it is difficult to obtain hard data on the true extent of the problem," he added. "This makes it difficult for many policy-makers to tackle it.”

To start plugging information gaps, FAO, in cooperation with the ILO, recently convened a workshop of international experts to share information and come up with policy recommendations specific to child labor in fisheries. Core recommendations will be presented by FAO at a major international conference on child labor set to occur in The Hague May 10-11.

The workshop marks the first time the problem of child labor in fisheries has been dealt with in a coordinated way at the global level.

One of the most dangerous jobs in the world

Fishing is probably one of the most hazardous occupations in the world, FAO deems.

Activities in which children engage can range from actively fishing, cooking on boats, diving for reef fish or to free snagged nets, herding fish into nets, peeling shrimp or cleaning fish and crabs, repairing nets, sorting, unloading, and transporting catches, and processing or selling fish.

Workshop participants confirmed that child labour is most common in small-scale, non-industrial, fishing.

Children in fisheries can find themselves in a variety of circumstances, from helping their fathers feed their families to forced servitude, according to a paper presented at the workshop by the World Fish Centre. At the worst end of the spectrum are cases of child trafficking, the paper noted.

In many cases, the risk to children goes beyond the danger of physical harm. "Child labour often reinforces a vicious cycle of poverty, has a negative impact on literacy rates and school attendance and limits children’s mental and physical health and development," according to Willmann.

Towards solutions

The workshop identified a complex mix of local circumstances and other factors that feed into the problem:

  • social inequalities
  • unemployment, poverty and vulnerability
  • seasonal work cycles and migratory lifestyles
  • poor quality or low relevance education
  • lack of access to education for geographic or cost reasons
  • low levels of parental education
  • cultural practices
  • the absence of policies and legislation on child labor and inadequate enforcement


"One thing is clear, there are no silver bullets here," said Bernd Seiffert of FAO's Economic and Social Development Department, who participated in the meeting. "Child labour is a complex problem and requires well coordinated, multisectoral responses."

Workshop participants proposed a range of actions that should be taken at the international, national, and local levels. These include legal measures and enforcement, policy interventions on a number of fronts including education, development and livelihoods support, and better data collection to close information gaps. (See document at right.)

A need to focus and accelerate action

“Although agriculture, including fisheries, has the largest share of child workers world-wide, the resources allocated to tackle the problem in this sector are comparatively very, very small," said Seiffert. "Most attention has been given to the issue within large scale industries and international value chains. Something needs to be done urgently to ensure that the resources allocated to tacking child labour in agriculture are proportionate to the scale of the problem if we are to achieve the global goal of eliminating the worst forms of child labour by 2016,” he said.

A comprehensive final report of the workshop and a joint ILO/FAO technical publication are in the works and will be released later this year.

In the shadows

Most experts agree that child labor in fishing is a widespread problem. But specifics are lacking — statistics on child labor are insufficient and additionally often lump fisheries, forestry, agriculture and livestock-raising together. Combined, these four sectors are estimated to have the largest percentage of child workers – 70 percent of the world total.

Presentations made at the workshop indicate that child labor in fisheries occurs in all world regions, although it is most problematic in Africa and Asia.

Workshop participants shared their knowledge of and experiences from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, El Salvador, Ghana, India, Senegal, Thailand and Uganda.

In one Sub Saharan country, it was found that children under 15 years of age comprised one-third of the labour force in capture fisheries, boat building and repair, and fish processing and trading.