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This article is written by Sushmita Soren pursuing Diploma in Labour, Employment and Industrial Laws (including POSH) for HR Managers from LawSikho.

The agricultural sector

The issue of human rights and child labour have been spoken about and regulated since the beginning of industrialization, sometime in the early 1800s. But, children working in agriculture go way back to the brink of time, when humans learned about agriculture and started practising it. Since earlier, agriculture meant working on one’s own field to cultivate crops and domestic animals to sustain themselves and if excess, barter is for something else in need. Slowly, as humans expanded their reach in various countries, the world revolutionized and there was more than something for everyone to do. One need not limit themselves to only agriculture. But one had to earn a living and sustain own family. Thus, the vicious circle of agriculture began where one could never actually get out of the farm, maybe for a few months in a year but not totally. After all, the world thrives on agriculture.

Agriculture is a complex and heterogeneous sector comprising a number of sub-sectors like animal husbandry, pest management, horticulture, viticulture, irrigation, etc. It is estimated that around 1.3 billion people work in agriculture which makes it the second greatest source of employment after services and accounts for 26.8 percent of global employment. As countries develop, the share of the population working in agriculture is also declining. But the proportion of workforce engaged in this sector in every country varies quite considerably, the proportion being higher in general terms in developing countries. Agricultural methods also vary from highly mechanised commercial production to traditional methods in small scale subsistence farming. However, in many countries, the distinction between the two is slightly eroding with increased commercialization and industrialization of agriculture and division of agriculture estates in several countries into smaller, individual farms, contracted to the central authority.

Why do children work in agriculture?

In many countries, child labour is mainly an agricultural issue. Worldwide, 60% of all child labourers in the age group of 5-17 years work in agriculture, the majority of which (67.5%) are unpaid family members. Though, accurate statistics regarding the number of economically active children are notoriously elusive. Some of the reasons for difficulty in obtaining data include different perceptions of who constitutes a child and what equates to child labour; difficulties in assessing what constitutes legal or illegal activities in agriculture in a particular country. Agriculture is one of the three most dangerous sectors in terms of work-related fatalities, non-fatal accidents and occupational diseases. About 59% of all children in hazardous work aged 5-17 are in agriculture.

Some of the main reason that we may say why children work in agriculture is because of poverty, combined with limited access to education, non-availability of adequate agriculture technology and access to adult labour, and not to forget, the traditional attitudes towards children’s participation in agricultural activities, especially in the context of family farming and small scale farming businesses. But not all participation of children in agriculture is forced or illegal or hazardous. Sometimes, working in the field with family contributes to the intergenerational transfer of skills and children’s food security. Some light duty work that does not interfere with a child’s education and leisure time and does not harm their health and personal development can be a normal part of growing up in a rural household or environment. It is mainly for this reason that even many nations have not been able to completely eradicate child labour in agriculture. A number of countries even permit “light work” to be carried out by children at a younger age than the basic minimum age of admission into employment. 

The reason also lies in the legislative side. Legislations may have neglected enforcement of child labour by assuming it to be a family-based work in rural areas which may not be very harmful to the children. Secondly, the policymakers have generally reputed academicians who are urban-based and are more likely to see the problems which are close at hand as rural areas are remote, both physically and culturally. Also, the decision on matters like these is influenced by powerful interest groups.  The neglect of the children working in the agricultural sector may also be seen as a part of a broader pattern of neglect of agricultural workers in national legislation. 

Apart from these, limited coverage of agriculture and family undertakings in national labour legislations, limited unionizations, fragmentation of labour force, low capacity of labour inspectors to cover rural areas, continuity between household and workplace are some other reasons for slow progress in eliminating child labour in agriculture.

Relevant ILO instruments and why it has still not been able to eradicate child labour

The Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No.138) requires the application to commercial legislation. It does however permit exceptions to be made for family and small scale holdings mainly producing for local consumption and not regularly employing hired workers.

The worst forms of the Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182) requires immediate and comprehensive action, taking into account the importance of free basic education and the need to remove the children concerned from all such work and to provide for their rehabilitation and social integration while addressing the needs of their families.

Both these ILO instruments have considered the importance of family-based agricultural works in which the children can be involved when it comes to a sustainable livelihood. Working of children in agriculture is a very grey area when it comes to developing nations that are rich in agricultural lands and use it to stand strong in the world economy. South Asia is one such region in the world that earns its place by the export of its rich agricultural produce. For example, there are many families in agricultural areas in India like in the state of Punjab,  who simply do not want their children to go to school because of the opportunities traditional farming brings to their family in terms of business. Also, agricultural farming is a source of pride for many rural folks and it’s their way to serve their motherland. From the high mountains of Ladakh to the rich fields of Kerala, farmers take pride in the products they grow. 

For reasons like these, many developing countries that thrive on agriculture have exempted agriculture from taxations and not defined a certain set of rules that need to be abided by. 

Even if we see the involvement of children in agriculture from the perspective of family, still it is very harmful for them to work there. There are many occupational and health safety issues for children as they are likely to be affected faster than any adults. Such effects may be exposure to toxic chemicals through manures and pesticides, use of farm machinery which they are not equipped to operate, driving farm vehicles like tractors or even just riding on them. It is also true that there is inadequate training given to farmers on operating machinery or instructing them for the correct method of use of fertilizers, chemicals, use of proper PPEs etc. There are no adequate or regular inspections of these matters in rural or semi-rural areas. In many countries, aerial spraying of pesticides is prevalent while the workers are still working on the fields with children as markers holding flags to the planes spraying them.

Apart from the physical risks to the children, there is definitely mental harm to the child too. Children are subject to physical labour from such a young age when it is time for them to be playful and enjoy childhood. And if the children go to school, it becomes exhausting for them to handle both and balance them in their life.

Conclusion

Agriculture can be considered a sympathetic topic that binds a nation together and is the source of the world’s capital. ILO standards have not specifically denied child labour in agriculture as in other occupations like in mining or any manufacturing industry. And how will it anyway? If we prohibit a child from working in agriculture, are the family or the rural households or the small business or employees who receive remuneration and are temporary or casual workers being provided with any alternate monetized schemes whereby they can completely not depend on a member of their family to physically contribute in the field? Can only proper legislation stop child labour in agriculture? No, as legislation is only one part of the equation. It can, however, be the beginning of efforts to improve the situation of children working in this sector by providing better access to educational facilities or improving general working conditions of the small business or family to curb the child labour in agriculture. Many families and even children (young adults) view agriculture as beneficial, or at the very least, as a better alternative to delinquency.

There is increasing international recognition of the dangers posed by agricultural work generally and for children working in this sector. Community-based development to curb child labour will create greater awareness and acceptance among the young and the old the rural areas. Designing of proper layout and execution of agricultural systems in villages can help tread a path towards better execution of agricultural activities. Collaborative governance may be an adequate way to initiate a sustainable agricultural practice locally that would someday include children of the family working in agriculture only to experiment with new things that they learnt in school and not as labour.     

References

[1]https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.AGR.EMPL.ZS

[2]https://www.ilo.org/ipec/areas/Agriculture/lang–en/index.htm


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