Child labour in the banana industry

The International Labour Organization (ILO)1 and FAO2 refer to child labour as work carried out by children that is likely to affect their:

  • physical condition, health and safety
  • mental, moral and social condition
  • education, either by preventing them from attending school or by affecting their ability to perform school-related tasks.

FAO emphasizes that some activities are not considered child labour if they are carried out outside school hours and at an appropriate age. In some cases, agricultural work can even contribute to the child’s skill development and food security. However, in the agricultural sector children are particularly vulnerable to specific risks and hazards such as the exposure to pesticides, which is prevalent in the production of exported crops such as bananas.

In 2012, about 168 million children were involved in child labour, 85.3 million of them performing hazardous work activities. Almost 60% of global child labour takes place in the agricultural sector, representing 98 million children3. Rural child labour is difficult to identify as most of the tasks carried out by children correspond to unpaid family labour. Some 68% of child labourers in sectors such as fisheries, livestock and plantations are unpaid4.

Child labour excludes all children working legally in accordance with the ILO’s Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138) and Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182).

Minimum age
Children are allowed to work to a certain extent, depending on the number of hours and nature of their tasks. The minimum age for children to be employed or work cannot be below the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case, not be less than 15 years. Occasionally, the minimum age can be specified at 14 years old in developing countries.

The ILO Convention No. 1385 sets the minimum age:

For light work: 13 years old, with an exception for developing countries where it can be 12 years old.

For hazardous work: 18 years old in every country, or 16 years old under strict conditions. 

Worst forms of child labour
ILO Convention No. 182 requires states to eliminate the worst forms of child labour, including all forms of slavery or similar practices such as debt bondage, serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, and hazardous work. The Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (FPRW) concern, among others, the effective abolition of child labour. The FPRW are universal and apply to all people in all ILO Member States, whether or not the relevant Conventions have been ratified.

Example of Chiquita/IUF (International Union of Food, Farm and Hotel Workers)

Example of Chiquita/IUF (International Union of Food, Farm and Hotel Workers)

  • In 2001, IUF and Chiquita reached an agreement including the respect of ILO Conventions 138 and 182 by the company and all its suppliers.
  • The agreement spells out that Chiquita will not use child labour in its plantations and work to ensure its suppliers do not in their own plantations.
  • As the only agreement on child labour between such a transnational company and a trade union, it is a good example of cross-border social dialogue in the banana industry.

Key aspects in the eradication of child labour

  • Rural poverty7: Child labour eradication in the banana sector is directly linked to rural poverty. Even with low salaries, child workers still represent a source of income for poor families. Alleviating rural poverty with higher wages is therefore an essential aspect of child labour eradication in the banana industry. Social security interventions can also help to combat child labour.
  • Prices: The stagnation of prices per box of bananas makes it difficult for farmers to cover rising costs of production. This encourages producers to hire a cheap workforce, including children, in order to lower the costs of production.
  • Education8: Education has a key role in the fight against child labour as skilled workers contribute to breaking the cycle of rural poverty9. In rural areas, it is difficult to guarantee the quality of education as working conditions for teachers may be poor. Some children whose family migrated from another country or region often suffer an interruption of their education. Because pesticides are often heavily used in banana plantations, it is also important for companies to make sure houses and schools are not located in the same area.
  • Gender: Girls often work more than boys instead of attending school, particularly as domestic tasks come on top of agricultural work. It is crucial to take into account the gender factor in the eradication of child labour.
  • Private sector involvement: To ensure the respect of labour rights and the eradication of child labour in particular, the involvement of the private sector, including multinational companies, is key, especially to make sure children don’t conduct hazardous work in banana plantations.
  • Public sector involvement: Without the influence of the ministries of labour, education, health, gender, but also local authorities and schools, child labour can remain hidden or displaced10. Workers’ organization such as the IUF stress the need to involve governments in child labour eradication, as they are able to guarantee decent work conditions through the following actions:

• enforcing labour legislation and minimum age legislation in agriculture
• enforcing policies and measures to protect child workers’ rights (for example, with more inspections from the Ministry of Labour to ensure legal compliance)
• investment in agriculture
• ensuring a quality and accessible school system with trained teachers
• promoting decent salaries
• raising awareness  in communities on the negative impacts of child labour for the community

  • Trade unions’ involvement: Trade unions and other workers organizations can also play a significant role in the elimination of child labour through collective bargaining and social dialogue, campaigns and advocacy work, legal engagement, policies and targeted interventions11.
  • Occupational safety and health (OSH): It is important to improve OSH for children who are of legal minimum working age in their country, while pursuing prevention and withdrawal strategies for children below the minimum working age and all children engaged in hazardous work. This may include promoting the use of substitutes for hazardous substances to help eradicate the worst forms of child labour.