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Points of View
Children in Agriculture

From tending sheep or harvesting crops to handling machinery or holding flags to guide planes spraying pesticides, children working in agriculture represent over two-thirds of the total number of working children. In regions where poverty is prevalent, the incidence of child labour is high and is more likely to involve children in hazardous or exploitative activities. However, farming is a way of life for many rural communities in developing countries and children are often involved in particular activities from a very young age.

What are the options for children that are forced to work? What contribution do their activities make to the household and to their lives in the future? What rights do they have and how should they be involved in legislation to protect them?


Defining child labour is difficult...the type of work undertaken by children also varies greatly. Some work can help a child socialise, build self esteem and develop skills. The income they bring home is often essential to family subsistence, and arguably, the immediate alternative to work - of increased poverty and malnutrition - is worse. However, working long hours, particularly in cramped, unhealthy and even hazardous conditions, threatens children's health and intellectual development.
Helping not hurting children, an alternative approach to child labour, DFID Issues

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Children are the most obvious victims of poorly regulated labour markets. According to UNICEF, one in four children in the developing world is working. Despite the publicity in recent years concerning child labour in export industries, such as textiles and footwear, most child labour takes place in the household or on family land. In India, estimates of the number of child labourers vary widely, depending partly on age samples and definitions. But a figure of 80 million children of school age is probably realistic. The majority of these children live in rural areas, reflecting high poverty levels and poor or non-existent education provision in village India.
Social Investment and Economic Growth, by Patrick Watt, published by Oxfam

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The largest proportion of child workers is in economic activities and occupations related to agriculture. Although the average proportion of children in agricultural activities and occupations is 70 to 74 per cent, it can be as high as 90 to 95 per cent in some countries. The percentage of girls in such activities is higher than that of boys...participation rate of children in economic activity are on average twice as high in rural communities as in urban centres. In addition, rural children, particularly girls, tend to begin economic activity at an early age - up to 20% under the age of 10 years.
Facts and figures on child labour, International Labour Organization, 1999

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Most child workers actually work in what is called the informal sector - selling things on the street, doing farm work or hidden away in houses carrying out domestic chores. They are beyond the reach of official labour inspectors and do not attract the attention of newspaper and television journalists. We must not forget the tens of millions of children all around the world who work, not in factories producing goods for export, but on the street, on the farm and at home. They have to put up with many hazards and dangers and are often taken advantage of, abused or exploited.
UNICEF website

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Occupational health and safety experts consider agriculture to be among the most dangerous of occupations. Climatic exposure, work that is too heavy for young bodies, and accidents such as cuts from sharpened tools are some of the hazards children face. Modern agricultural methods bring further hazards in their wake: use of toxic chemicals and motorized equipment, usually without the benefit of training or safety precautions. While generally found only larger agricultural enterprises, small family farms also increasingly make use of such methods... exposure to pesticides poses a considerably higher risk to children than adults and has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, neuropathy and immune system abnormalities. Exposure to organic dusts is also widespread in farms and plantations.
Child labour in agriculture, International Labour Organization, 1999

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Though household poverty and poor education are root causes of child labour, the phenomenon also depends on adults - either employers or parents - prepared to exploit children and benefit from their labour.
Social Investment and Economic Growth, by Patrick Watt, published by Oxfam

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Many children feel that stepping into the workforce at an early age provides them with a better chance for survival. They still question the value of education. They see schools as institutions for containment, not education. Standards of teaching and facilities often leave much to be desired. This raises the fundamental question of the elimination of child labour. What kind of security needs to be provided to children so that they perceive education and childhood as being important?
K.R Mangala Kannan and Lakshmi Vikraman, CEDAR writing in Landmark, Jan/Feb 2000

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In agricultural communities, particularly in Nepal and Pakistan, some families are trapped in debt bondage to their employer. It is not uncommon for families to use a child's labour to secure a loan from an employer, or to sell the child for a lump sum.
Helping not hurting children, an alternative approach to child labour, DFID Issues

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Children's contribution to development goes unrecognised. Children are seen as providing a silent and obedient labour force.
Footsteps, March 1999 published by Tearfund

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AIDS has created hundreds of thousands of orphans in Africa, and will create many more as its impact is felt beyond Africa, in India and China in the coming decades. In each place that its social and economic impacts are experienced a certain burden will fall on children - a burden of work, which goes beyond what is normal in their society and culture.
Professor Tony Barnett, School of Development Studies, UEA, writing in Landmark, Jan/Feb 2000

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With the spread of AIDS it is expected that the numbers of orphans will increase and the shortage of money for food, clothing and education will become more acute. In the circumstances, a legalistic approach to preventing child labour is unlikely to work. Broader approaches based on the principles of development, social security and community involvement must be adopted.
David Steele, Ethical Trading Initiative, writing in Landmark, Jan/Feb 2000

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Protective legislation is limited in agriculture. In many countries, the places where children work are excluded as family undertakings or work in agriculture is excluded altogether from legal protection. Even when there is legal protection, enforcement of child labour legislation is difficult, given the geographically dispersed nature of the agriculture industry.
Child labour in agriculture, International Labour Organization, 1999

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To be successful, measures to tackle child labour must generate sustainable income replacement and/or provide alternatives to work. Indeed, the most sustainable outcomes may involve allowing children to work, but controlling their conditions and hours and linking work to high quality education.
Helping not hurting children, an alternative approach to child labour, DFID Issues

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Education is an important component in the prevention of child labour but it is misleading to promote it as a straightforward alternative to child labour. Whilst access to education is important the emphasis must be on quality and in some cases community awareness work may need to be done to promote the value of education. Even freely provided and appropriate education has a cost - clothing, pencils etc need to be provided by the family, not to mention the opportunity cost to that family of the child not working.
Save the Children Briefing Paper: Eliminating the worst forms of child labour - what needs to be done? May 1998

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The major determinant of child labour is poverty. Even though children are paid less than adults, whatever income they earn is of benefit to poor families. In addition to poverty, the lack of adequate and accessible sources of credit forces poor parents to engage their children in the harsher form of child labour - bonded child labour. Some parents also feel that a formal education is not beneficial, and that children learn work skills through labour at a young age. These views are narrow and do not take the long term developmental benefits of education into account. Another determinant is access to education. In some areas, education is not affordable, or is found to be inadequate. With no other alternatives, children spend their time working.
Child Labour in India: Causes, Governmental Policies and the role of Education by Mitesh Badiwala

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In every country, rich and poor, it is the nature and conditions of children's work which determines whether or not they are exploited - not the plain fact of their working.....work for a few hours a day that contributes to the family's well-being - whether by performing domestic duties or helping in the family fields - is more likely to foster a child's development than to damage it.
Keynote on child labour, New Internationalist, July 1997

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In many regions the surplus of cheap child labour has depressed the already inadequate adult wage to the point where a parent and child together now earn less than the parent alone earned a year ago. As long as children are put to work, poverty will spread and standards of living will continue to decline.
Child Labour in Pakistan by Jonathan Silvers

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