Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

Child Labour in Agriculture – Trade Issues

by Christian Häberli[1]

Child Labour is still frequent

According to ILO/IPEC, Agriculture, including livestock production, fishing and aquaculture, is by far the most important sector where child labour is found, accounting for 59 per cent of all those in child labour, and over 98 million children in absolute terms. Moreover, agriculture is one of the three most dangerous sectors in terms of work-related fatalities, non-fatal accidents, and occupational diseases.[2] However, arguably both social concerns and the economic impact may be less dramatic in agriculture than in manufacturing, mining and other hazardous employment, because it consists primarily of work on smallholder family farms. Yet, an 2011 Agricultural Household Model study in Uganda, India, Paraguay and other countries found that in the absence of efficient labour markets, land ownership and land reform programmes can actually increase child labour at the cost of schooling and/or leisure time.[3] The biggest social concerns arise in respect of workers migrating with their families, and refugees in famine-prone areas without adequate support. Also noteworthy is the fact that age and gender matter in a debate on the social impact of child labour.

Do Agricultural Exports Increase Child Labour?

Agricultural policies and strategies help to end child labour in agriculture must not stop at the border. Small farmer family production may seldom reach export markets. Nonetheless, children of landless and contract farmers may also produce cash crops. Plantation owners may employ forced labour, including children. Hence, market interdependence and global food security concerns call for action at all levels. This has become an issue for trade in commodities and food processed by children in many poor countries. Calls for measures against ‘socio-dumping’ have brought the discussion to the international trade agenda – so far with little results.

The WTO lacks binding ‘minimum’ social clauses, and it protects (developing) countries against discriminatory practices in the guise of alleged labour or environmental concerns. However, a new generation of economic treaties concluded by the USA and, albeit to a lesser degree by the EU, foresees consultations, litigation procedures and even sanctions aiming at the respect of social and environmental commitments in those treaties. However, with the exception of the dismissal of a US complaint in a trade agreement including Guatemala, there has been no judicial ruling under any trade agreement in respect of labour standard violations. Sanctions even for the most flagrant international labour standard violations have only been implemented through (threats of) preference suspensions or withdrawals in Bangladesh and Cambodia. Both trade behemoths, the USA and the EU, still seem to consider ‘nudging’ as the preferred course of redress for labour standards violations, even where litigation procedures with the possibility of sanctions are available, on the condition that such violations also distort trade.

Nonetheless, despite the absence of agricultural labour-related trade conflicts on record, the measures and procedures foreseen in economic treaties appear to show a new way for reducing child labour. The race to the bottom at times supposed to accompany globalisation and trade liberalisation can be stopped, where “red lines” are drawn clearly and not merely for the protection of producers in the importing countries. Commitments to respect the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work of the ILO (1998), for instance in new trade agreements entered into by Vietnam, can even initiate a race to the top, and protect exporters against abusive claims of politicians, trade unions and civil society in importing countries. The deal is ‘market access guaranteed in exchange for products and services respecting labour clauses’ in those treaties. Together with a ‘neutral’ involvement of the ILO, multilaterally accepted and monitored standards would also allow for better and non-confrontational stakeholder interaction than child protection standards self-defined by trade hegemons.

Peremptory, enforceable child protection standards could thus find a new common enforcement basis in the more recent economic treaties, without the fear of free-riding by third countries benefiting from globalised trade without a bottom line.

Christian Häberli (PhD, Law), WTI Fellow

World Trade Institute, University of Bern (Switzerland)

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[1] Cf. Christian Häberli, An International Regulatory Framework for National Employment Policies. in 50(2) Journal of World Trade 167–192 (2016)

[3] Diego Angemi, Child Labour (2011): Insights from an Agricultural Household Model