Agriculture the Culprit for Child Labor?
A study by the ILO – International Labor Organization revealed that today there are approximately 218 million child workers in the world, 70 percent of them (approximately 132 million) in agriculture. Jose Maria Sumpsi, FAO assistant director for Agriculture and consumer protection, deemed this number “unacceptable,” adding that these children often have to work in unhealthy and hazardous conditions. Even worse is the conclusion by the same study that these 132 million children account for nothing less than a third of the total agriculture workforce in the world.
The fact that children are such an important part of the agricultural labor makes it even harder for them to abandon this kind of labor. Unlike industrial child labor, where children are “hired” simply for receiving lower wages, that is, for financial reasons, in the countryside these children are often part of the farmer's family, which is in turn often a poor family that depends on the land to survive. Generally, these children work in the fields to help their younger siblings by helping their parents sell the little they produce. Then again, unlike industrial labor, parents don't have an alternative to make their children work, involuntarily entering a downward spiral that is very likely to lead the same children, and their siblings down the same path of subsistence, lack of options and forced labor for their won children in the future.
Based on these grim predicitions for child rural workers, two other UN agencies beside the ILO, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and the IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) joined a number of international research organizations to tackle the issue. During the ILO annual conference and to mark UN's world day against child labor, the three UN bodies plus the other three NGO's - the IFAP (International Federation of Agricultural Producers), the IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) and the union for workers in the food industry IUF – signed an agreement to materialize their intention of working together against child labor in the countryside.
Rural child labor is, primarily, a matter of dissolution of rural workers, according to IFAP. As said by David King Secretary-general for the organization, "Unless the poor are organized, they will remain politically powerless and economically disadvantaged." A problem inherent to poor countries with no relevant industry, rural children work mostly on basic products typical of tropical countries such as cocoa, coffee and sugar, products that are very often consumed by richer countries. These children also face work conditions sometimes more grueling than the ones seen in industrial jobs, conditions that can lead to serious problems such as loss of limbs, for using dangerous cutting or grinding machines, intoxication or even cancer, for the daily contact with hazardous pesticides or exhaustion and death, for working long hours every day. The burden is even worse for girls, who must endure domestic chores before and after the tenuous work in the fields. Most of the times, for the large number of children these poor families have, the mother alone (who also works in the rural production, usually) is not enough to take care of the whole family.
The consequences for this are sad, but obvious. With no free time, the children have no chance to get a decent education that would allow them to go beyond the farms, while the lack of play time takes away their childhood, replacing it by a long road of mental and physical exhaustion, with very little chance of positive change in the future. With a “career” that starts at 5 years old and goes up to 14 (when nothing changes, except that they're no longer children, by official standards), they become adults without having the tiniest glimpse on infancy, all for”helping to produce the food and beverages we consume,” as written in the ILO report.
The plan for the consortium of agencies created in the ILO conference is to strengthen rural workers' unions in poor countries, so that they have the means and the voice to fight back the demands of cheaper and cheaper prices by the ones they supply with their byproduct, guaranteeing a better earning for the producing families, allowing them to better provide for their children, relieving them from the need to work on the field to harvest more and more, earning less and less. In addition, the group will be able to better tackle and pressure the authorities to oversee and punish the farmers who employ children for lower salaries or force them and/or their families to work for them. As Jose Maria Sumpsi said, “The true winning strategy against child labour is to reduce poverty in rural areas of the developing world, offering income opportunities, addressing health and safety in agriculture, improving pesticide management, and ensuring sustainable development.”
Another challenge ahead of the organizations is to break the evil bond between forced child labor and crimes that, even though more common to industrialized forced labor, found particularly in Asian cities, are also more common to the rural world than most people think; forced child labor is often associated with kidnapping, trafficking and selling of children or child prostitution, as it usually comes form the same sources, and the countryside is at least as vulnerable (if not more vulnerable) than urban areas.
Although there are a few reasons to celebrate, in the midst of all the drama. Some regions in India have shown such a good progress that child labor came to the point of almost being eliminated. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there was a reduction of 11 percent (from 16 to 5 percent) from 200 to 2004. The number of children working in hazardous conditions was reduced by nothing less than 26 percent in the same period, a remarkable progress. The ILO head Juan Somavia is confident that, with a joint effort, the “worst kinds of child labor” can be eliminated until 2016.
Tags: Un , Child Labor , Ilo , Humanitarian
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