Child Labour in Agriculture

South Africa: A global conference to accelerate action against child labour



Child labour has risen for the first time in twenty years, according to the 2020 Global Estimates released by the ILO and UNICEF. Worldwide, 160 million children are trapped in child labour – an increase of 8.4 million in four years, which marks a dramatic reversal of years of progress. The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the situation. For this reason, the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour, to be held by the Government of South Africa and the ILO from 15 to 20 May, comes at a critical time.

Child labour overwhelmingly occurs in agriculture – the sector accounts for more than 70 percent of child labour worldwide. Currently, 112 million boys and girls are working in crop farming, fisheries and aquaculture, livestock, and forestry. This means that, to upscale progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 and thus eliminate all forms of child labour, we need a breakthrough in agriculture. For this reason, the 5th Global Conference gives unprecedented weight to the agricultural component of child labour. A dedicated high-level thematic panel on child labour in agriculture and a side-event focused on the fisheries sector, both organized and facilitated by FAO, will present solutions, renew commitment from agricultural actors, and call for more cross-sectoral actions and investments to alleviate poverty and transform our agrifood systems.

Multifaceted drivers

Much of child labour happens in agriculture because of the labour-intensive and hazardous nature of the tasks, as well as the difficulty of identifying and remunerating an adult workforce to accomplish those tasks. 

Household poverty remains one of the main drivers of child labour in the agricultural sector. Where there is poverty and hunger, there is also an increased likelihood of child labour. Low family incomes, lack of livelihood alternatives, poor access to education, and limited labour law enforcement all contribute to child labour in rural areas. Many families and communities feel that they have no other choice than to rely on their children to meet their needs for food and income. Children who work instead of benefitting from schooling are likely to become the hungry of tomorrow, perpetrating the cycle of rural poverty.

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening the situation. Children have been used to compensate income loss and the lack of work force in food and agriculture production due to movement restrictions.

Solutions - Acting together

These drivers are as multifaceted as agriculture itself, which makes child labour in agriculture an issue that requires cross-sectoral measures, which need to be adapted to specific contexts and sub-sectors. All the actors in the world of agriculture have a role to play. 

Governments are responsible for integrating interventions to eliminate child labour and to protect and provide for children are into national policies and within relevant portfolios – from labour, agriculture and fisheries, to rural development, education, social services, health and justice. 

More resources and attention need to be directed to vulnerable families, and to better programme monitoring and evaluation systems to learn from what works and where. Research institutions can contribute to building evidence, which is essential to raising awareness, initiating dialogue and designing appropriate actions.

Producers’ organizations are able to provide services that contribute to ending the dependence of family farms and enterprises on child labour. These include training to increase the efficiency of adult workers and promotion of sustainable technologies and alternative practices that improve safety and productivity. They also can help identify and address the use of child labour in the supply chains.

Agricultural extension agents are on the frontline, interacting with farmers, fishers, livestock raisers daily, they can address some of the root causes of child labour in agriculture by supporting shifts to improved practices and technologies. 

Finally, there is increasing pressure on the private sector to be more proactive and to comply with human rights obligations. Due diligence legislation may be an opportunity for companies to do more than apply safeguards and implement measures that address the root causes of child labour, such as supporting the livelihoods of rural producers by for example paying fair prices and wages. 

In the same way, there are untapped opportunities to eliminate child labour in agriculture through investment programmes and international financing institutions, by integrating child labour dimensions in socio-economic assessments and by targeting areas and communities with a high prevalence of child labour.

FAO’s role

In 2021, the ‘International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour’, FAO intensified its work to address child labour in agriculture. Throughout the year, FAO organized a series of regional consultations among agricultural actors, which culminated into the high-level Global Solutions Forum: Acting Together to End Child Labour in Agriculture, held in November 2021 to increase awareness of the many exiting good practices and scale-up joint efforts. 

During the Forum, we listened to children, youth, and panellists representing about 40 different countries. It reconfirmed the urgent need to act together and showed that solutions exist, but need to be adapted and scaled up. The highlights emerged from the Forum will inform the 5th Global Conference thematic session on child labour in agriculture.

As part of its renewed commitment to end child labour, FAO has also launched the Child Labour in Agriculture Prevention Facility, a multi-resource partner programme that offers comprehensive support and tailored solutions to child labour in agriculture in all its forms, regions, and contexts. To do so, the Facility will build on the good practices and successful experiences piloted, implemented, and documented by FAO and its partners over the last decade.

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Fast facts:

  • Child labour is a grave violation of human rights: it is harmful for children, it hinders their education, health and future employability, perpetuating poverty.
  • Today, nearly 1 in 10 children are trapped in child labour worldwide.
  • In Sub-Saharan Africa, numbers of child labourers rose by more than 15 million since 2016. There are now more children in child labour in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world combined.
  • Worldwide, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of child labour (112 million boys and girl), with children starting to work as young as 5 years old as unpaid family labour.
  • An additional four million children were drawn into child labour in agriculture over the period 2016-2020.
  • The socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 on rural populations has been dramatic. Children have been used to compensate for income loss and the lack of workforce in food and agriculture production.