FAO: Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of child labour worldwide

Meeting charts way forward to eliminate hazardous farm work for children

14 September 2006, Rome -- Some 70 percent of child labour worldwide is found in agriculture, with many children engaged in forced and hazardous activities. They are often obliged to work long hours, use sharp tools designed for adults, carry loads too heavy for their immature bodies and operate dangerous machinery. Children working in agriculture also risk exposure to toxic pesticides, dusts, diseases and unsanitary conditions.

Reducing child labour in agriculture was on the agenda of a recent meeting in Rome, which brought together representatives from FAO and other international agricultural organizations and the International Labour Organization (ILO) to discuss how to coordinate their efforts to tackle the problem.

Agriculture is one of the three most hazardous work sectors -- along with mining and construction -- in terms of work-related deaths and injuries, and this is especially true for children, whose lack of experience or training and still-developing bodies make them particularly vulnerable.

“Some agricultural activities -- mixing and applying pesticides, using certain types of machinery -- are so dangerous that children should be clearly prohibited from engaging in them,” says Parviz Koohafkan, Director of FAO’s Rural Development Division.

But, he adds, not all of the work that children do is harmful to their development and well-being.

“When it comes to subsistence and family agriculture, children’s participation in family farm activities helps them learn valuable skills, build self-esteem and contribute to the generation of household income, which has a positive impact on their own livelihoods,” Koohafkan says. “So this is a very complex issue which should be looked into case by case to avoid generalization.”

Not all forms of work undertaken by children are considered child labour under ILO standards. Light work that does not interfere with education is permitted from the age of 12 years, as is work by children 15 years and above that is not classified as hazardous.

Child labour, according to ILO conventions, is work that harms children’s well-being and hinders their education, development and future livelihoods. When children are forced to work long hours in the fields, their ability to attend school or skills training is limited, and consequently, so are their possibilities of economic and social mobility and advancement in later life.

Agricultural child labour is rooted in the livelihood systems of rural areas and the economic vulnerability of families. Generating alternative income sources for households may reduce the need for children to work and allow their families to send them to school.

Through its promotion of rural development strategies and programmes aimed at improving rural livelihoods, creating alternative income-generating activities, and addressing health and safety in agriculture, FAO has an important role to play in helping reduce the use of child labour and the level of hazards associated with it, according to Koohafkan. FAO’s efforts to improve pesticide management, for example, help protect child labourers from one of the main hazards they face.

Education is an essential prerequisite for reducing poverty, improving agriculture and the living conditions of rural people and building a food-secure world. But rural children generally have poor access to quality education due to lack of schools, lack of or poorly trained teachers, and irrelevant curricula, or because their families cannot afford the school fees.

As the lead UN agency in the global partnership on Education for Rural People, FAO is working with UNESCO and other partners to overcome the urban/rural gap in education and to improve the quality of basic rural education and access to it.

The challenge of eliminating of hazardous child labour is particularly daunting in Africa where agriculture is the dominant economic activity, and factors such as persistent poverty and food insecurity, poor education and HIV/AIDS compound the problem.

Children orphaned by HIV/AIDS suffer in a variety of ways. Not only do they lose their parents, but with them essential life skills and farming know-how traditionally passed on from generation to generation. Without access to assets, and often left with the responsibility for their households and younger siblings, many are forced into work and are especially vulnerable to exploitation and harassment.

FAO’s Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools in a number of African countries are providing HIV/AIDS orphans and other vulnerable children with skills for farming and life and are helping reinforce social cohesion in communities hard hit by HIV/AIDS.

Participants at the FAO meeting agreed that a widespread information and advocacy campaign was needed to draw attention to the problem of child labour in agriculture. The World Day of Action Against Child Labour, held each year on 12 June, will focus in 2007 on child labour in agriculture to raise awareness of the issue worldwide.

”Most working children in the world are found on farms and plantations, not in factories, sweatshops or urban areas,” says Jennie Dey DePryck, Chief of FAO’s Rural Institutions and Participation Service. “If we want to eliminate the worst forms of child labour, greater effort needs to be made to address child labour in agriculture.”

FAO Press release