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In Focus

Child labour in agriculture

Washington meeting aims to accelerate action to get children out of work and into school

Last week, Washington hosted the first International Conference on Child Labour in Agriculture. Some 160 participants, representing governments, inter-governmental organizations, trade unions, teachers and farmers organizations, cooperatives, non-governmental organizations and corporations from more than 50 countries took part in the three-day conference, organized by the Global March Against Child Labour, a worldwide network of civil society organizations working to get children out of work and into school. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, a leading US advocate of efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labour, opened the conference, which mapped out a framework committing the groups to action.

Worldwide 215 million children are child labourers, and around 130 million boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 17 work in agriculture, including livestock-keeping, fisheries and forestry. Many of them are engaged in hazardous activities – working in fields where pesticides have been applied, staying up all night on fishing boats, using sharp tools designed for adults, or carrying loads too heavy for their still-growing bodies – which put their health and safety at risk. Most are unpaid family workers. Pervasive poverty is one of the main causes of child labour in rural areas; it is also one of the consequences.

In 2010, the international community adopted the Roadmap for Achieving the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour by 2016, which highlights the predominance of child labour in agriculture.


Bernd SeiffertMuch of the work on child labour in agriculture has been focused on internationally traded commodities, like cocoa and cotton, but the majority of child labourers work in small-scale, family-based agriculture, according to Bernd Seiffert of FAO’s Gender Equity and Rural Employment Division.

“The agriculture sector is under-regulated in many countries and much labour legislation either explicitly excludes the informal sector and self-employed smallholders or is not enforced,” says Seiffert.

FAO is working with the International Labour Organization and other partners on ways to apply the decent work framework in a rural context.

At the Washington meeting, Seiffert chaired a workshop on addressing child labour in neglected agricultural sub-sectors, such as fishing, forestry and livestock-keeping.

“We’re starting to see more action in the fisheries sector and other areas where there hasn’t been much focus before,” says Seiffert. He highlights Cambodia’s recent commitment to address child labour in fisheries and aquaculture as an example.

With support from FAO and the ILO, the Cambodian Fisheries Administration has integrated child labour targets into its 10-year strategic planning framework and the Cambodian code of conduct for responsible fisheries. Fishing communities themselves have committed to tackling child labour at the local level as part of the sustainable management of small-scale fisheries.

Efforts aimed at addressing child labour in the livestock sector still have a long way to go, Seiffert says. A new FAO publication – Children’s work in the livestock sector: herding and beyond – is an attempt to address the knowledge gap on child labour in livestock-keeping, which has deep cultural and traditional roots.

Whatever the sector, however, the key to success is working with rural communities, parents and children, according to Seiffert.

He notes that not all of the work that children do is harmful to their well-being. Children’s participation in age-appropriate family farm activities that do not put their health and development at risk or keep them from attending school can teach them valuable skills.

“It’s a complex issue. Getting local communities on board is essential to break the vicious cycle of child labour, where lack of access to education limits future opportunities and perpetuates the cycle of poverty,” he says.

“By strengthening families’ ability to earn a decent income and increase their access to food and better nutrition, we can help get at the root causes of child labour in agriculture and enable them to send their children to school rather than work.”

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