Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

Supplementary Comments on Addressing Child Labour in Food Systems

Often, it has been pointed out that child labour occurs in several areas closely connected with agriculture. Therefore, it would be reasonable to include those in the current discussion. However, addressing the problem of child labour in agriculture and related pursuits requires one to look at the challenge from a food system perspective. This would enable one to approach the problem in an inclusive and holistic way.

These comments outline some of the difficulties that would have to be overcome before the successful field implementation of any programme/project could be carried out. Unless this is done, it is difficult to envisage how one may make significant inroads into a social inequity that has blighted many a young life. The following are the sub-systems constitutive of a food system in order of their emergence; their diversity arises purely from the technological differences among them.

  • Yielder; the actual source of food, agriculture and environment.
  • Harvesting; reaping, fishing etc.
  • Transport; on a man’s back, refrigerated cargo vessles etc.
  • Storage; family larder, grain silos etc.
  • Preservation; any process intended to extend the period of safe usability of food.
  • Preparation; process of making food items fit for an end-user’s consumption.
  • Supplementation; restoration of depleted ecosystems services through the use of fertilisers, weeding, biocides, irrigation etc.
  • Selling; retail or wholesale vending, also includes that of prepared food as in cafes and restaurants. This sub-system may include one or more of its own sub-systems:
  1. Sorting.
  2. Packing/packaging.
  3. Promotion using audio/visual propaganda.
  4. Speculation; commodity futures, withholding the release of surplus items to keep up the prices etc.

Observation reveals that child-labour occurs in every sub-system except in IV above. In affluent countries, children appear in advertisements included in III, which some may claim to be a benign form of child-labour to promote items less than benign to their consumers. Many contributors have described child-labour as it is found in those sub-systems of a food system.

Here, addressing the present problem faces two distinct challenges:

  • Could one succeed in solving the problem in a country by undertaking a variety of appropriate local actions?
  • If not, what other steps ought to be taken to ensure success?

It may seem easy to answer the first question by limiting oneself to food systems. Meanwhile, the justifiable purpose of a food system is to enable the end-users to procure a sustainable supply of affordable  and wholesome food needed for a balanced diet. Should one avoid emotional reactions to the phenomenon, exclusion of child-labour from food systems is a question of ethics and social equity, and as such calls for the intervention of other domains.

Some may argue that food and agriculture authorities could ban child-labour in food systems. But, the legislation required to make this law of the land calls for a majority in a country’s legislature which does not seem to be the easiest of tasks, for it involves protracted negotiations among diverse interests.  These include political groupings representing trade and industry, transportation etc.

Moreover, confining one’s efforts to agriculture could not deal with child-labour, because it occurs in most sub-systems in a food system. In addition to poverty and hunger, the unscrupulous prefer child-labour in food systems in order to increase their profits. This requires unequivocal and prompt legal action. Although not exhaustive, these are some of the difficulties associated with the first challenge.

As for the second, the necessity of involving the judiciary has already been mentioned. Dealing with poverty among the employees of a food system calls for a devolved and cooperative operation of food systems while it would also ameliorate hunger and inappropriate nutrition. But such a change in food systems can hardly be undertaken without the involvement of the domains like trade and industry, finance etc.

These comments must not be construed as a prediction of futility; they merely point out some crucial aspects of the problem that would repay careful attention. In his first contribution to this discussion, the present writer has described them in greater detail. It differs from other suggestions in that it provides a template into which all elements of a food system may seamlessly fit at national, regional and most importantly, at local level.

Best wishes!

Lal Manavado.