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Concept Note

Background and Rationale

Of 215 million child labourers in the world, most child labourers aged 5 and 17 years old are in agriculture (60%) compared to some 26% in services and 7% in industry (Accelerating action against child labour, ILO Report 2010).  Agriculture not only employs the most child labourers, but is also an invisible form of child labour, because the farms are either small family holdings or they work in commercial farms which are not open for scrutiny and can easily mask the existence of child labour through sub-contractual agreements.  Children start working at an age of even 4 sometimes, in farms and a large portion of them is in the age group of 5-10 years. Work begins with simple ‘harmless’ activities- picking flowers or seeds, grazing cattle etc.  As they progress in age, and as the agricultural seasons change, their tasks change and the distinction between what constitutes hazardous and what does not becomes a matter of subjectivity and interpretation.  This is the situation the world over.  In the Indian subcontinent, large scale trafficking and bonded labour or debt bondage is also present in which a family pledges the labour of the child(ren) in lieu of repayment of debt or children are trafficked over large distances to work in agricultural farms.  This is considered ‘justifiable’ by the perpetrators and even the victims’ families and most often goes unnoticed.

Child labour laws on agriculture are either non-existent or are insufficient.  Also, farmers are not organised or unionised which makes regulation or demanding for rights for all farmers, makes it almost impossible; for child labourers, more so.  Thus, the invisible nature of the problem, the vastness of agriculture as a sector and societal acceptance in the name of necessity make it a difficult for eliminating child labour in the sector.  However, it is for these reasons that an initiative is also necessary.

Apart from this, child labour in agriculture is hazardous: children work long hours, use sharp tools which need not be machinery, (a sickle for instance); carrying weight over their tiny shoulders, exposure to pesticides, etc.  None of these activities may actually fall under the ‘hazardous’ list legally in India or other countries, but the very nature of work has apparent health hazards.  For example, according to AICRP data on farm injuries, children constituted 17% of the injured in Northern India, i.e. one is every 6th person injured is a child. (Source: Drudgery, Accidents, Injuries in Indian Agriculture by Pranab Kumar Nag and Anjali Nag, 2004 for National Institute of Occupational Health, Indian Council for Medical Research).  One can imagine the magnitude in the entire country.  In addition, many of the children start working at a tender age and exposure to this harsh environment takes its toll on their physical, mental, emotional growth thus subtly and slowly stunting them.  Most importantly, children who work in fields are losing out on education, which is a non-negotiable for a bright future for them.  Without addressing their education needs, the problem of child labour cannot be resolved.

Bt cotton, cocoa, tea plantations and fisheries industry are only a few examples of intervention against child labour in agriculture, the world over.  It is interesting to note the similarities.  All these sectors are largely governed by commercial farms owned by a syndicate of companies having the dominant share in the industry they represent.  Apart from these sectors of agriculture, there is little understanding or research done in others.  Given the scope of the sector and the number of children it affects, a much larger perspective is necessary.

Given this background, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) and Global March Against Child Labour are organizing the South Asia Regional Consultation on Child Labour in Agriculture and Allied Activities on 29 July 2010, Thursday in New Delhi, India.  This consultation will bring together NGOs and civil society partners from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, INGOs, UN agencies including ILO, UNICEF, FAO, trade unions, farmers’ unions and teachers unions.  The objective of this consultation is to build a basic understanding of the situation of child labour in agriculture, and what is being done to eliminate it.  This can form the basis for building a ‘Collective Action Forum’ to devise a strategy to eliminate child labour in agriculture.

The South Asian perspective

South Asia is home to the largest number of child labourers in the world.  Though the bulk of this is from India, a sizable number of child labourers are also present in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.  Agriculture is the largest employer of child labour across the world.  So it is safe to assume that the largest number of child labourers exist in agriculture sector in the Indian sub-continent.  Culturally, all these five countries have similarities in terms of kind of work and acceptance of children being associated with agriculture and its allied activities.  Child labour in agricultural farms is widespread across India.  Some of the most common ones are paddy and wheat (mainly harvesting season), sugarcane, rubber, fishing, and many more.  In Bangladesh children work in tea and tobacco plantations and in fishing industry.  In Nepal, children are engaged in tea, tobacco and sugar cane farming.  Children from Kamaiya community are often employed as bonded labourers.  Children in Pakistan work in family farms and in fishing industry.  Sri Lanka is the only country, which is a little different in that children that economically active but also gain education.  Bonded labour or debt bondage was (and is) a common phenomenon in all the countries apart from Sri Lanka.  And all these 4 countries have legislation on bonded labour and prohibit child labour in certain sectors of which only certain processes in agriculture are prohibited.  Sri Lanka doesn’t have any child labour specific legislation though constitutionally child labour in hazardous work is prohibited.

Thus, agriculture does not find a dominant place in the child labour laws in the South Asian laws, for example, only a few processes are deemed hazardous in the Child Labour (Regulation and Prohibition) Act, 1986, of India.  It is largely due to the reason that agriculture does not find a place in the legal instruments that there are rarely any initiatives towards ending child labour in agriculture.  So much so that, no reliable data also exists regarding the number of children engaged in agricultural labour.

One phenomenon peculiar to agriculture is that agricultural child labourers double up as domestic labourers.  There is a smooth transition from working in farm during day to working at home during evenings and nights.  In fact this phenomenon is seen the world over (Source: Policy on Agricultural labour, 2006 guidebook by ILO).  This is also true in the case of child labourers in India, especially those trafficked from one state to another; among Kamaiya in Nepal and in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka.

The discussions during the conference will also revolve around some other phenomena that need greater study. These are as follows:

Trafficking for forced labour: trafficking for agriculture is both seasonal and non-seasonal. And it is increasing. To give an example,Ravi (name changed) was a child from Bihar when he was trafficked from Bihar by a middleman to work in the fields of Punjab.  For 6 years, Ravi toiled in the fields during day-time and during night-time as domestic help in his master’s home. Working 16 hours a day, spraying chemicals in the fields without any protective gear, forced to sleep in the cow shed along with cows, and being drugged so that he would not feel hungry and work for longer hours were some to the inhumane methods used by the employers.  When he was rescued at the age of 12, he had forgotten Maithili, his native language and could not converse with his mother.

Thousands of children are being trafficked from Bihar to Punjab and Haryana, from Rajasthan to Gujarat, from within the states in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the details of which are sketchy and need proper research.  The trends of trafficking, extent, nature and any organised networks are some of the important aspects to be noted.

Bonded labour: debt bondage has been perpetuating in the entire sub-continent for centuries now. In Nepal, the Kamaiya community has borne the brunt of this practice.  Several thousands were bonded due to a debt taken by their parents/grand parents and pledged the labour of their entire family or children in lieu of the payment.  Today, even after almost a decade of the Bonded Labour Abolition Act, 2001, many bonded labourers are left in the lurch because they are now left behind as landless, homeless people with no developed skills or proper rehabilitation.

There is also a link between bonded labour and trafficking.  Many a time, trafficking is the means of sourcing bonded labour from another country or another state. This angle should also be discussed in the consultation.

The education perspective: India and the other countries need to do a soul search regarding meeting their education goals.  Especially, in India, how education as a fundamental right would be implemented as a law when no initiative is being undertaken to address the largest chunk of out-of school children that is engaged in the agriculture sector.  All the South Asian nations are a part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and some, like India have the Right to Education as an enforceable law.  Strategies need to be made for this, else the laws on education will remain on paper.  Hence, an understanding of the problems in child labour in agriculture is the first step to ensure education for all children.  Also, the initiatives that have been taken by Sri Lanka, which has a higher education level than other South Asian countries can be learnt. Besides, the role of teachers’ unions, farmers’ unions, and educational groups in this matter needs to be studied and appropriate measures taken.

Good practices: Wherever interventions have been done to remove child labour in agriculture, it is necessary to study these and apply them elsewhere, wherever possible.  Studying the good practices to eliminate child labour in Bt Cotton, cocoa and tea plantations will help others to learn from these experiences, the main problems encountered and how to overcome them.  One initiative that needs a special mention is the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD) initiative by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Labor Organization (ILO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), International Union of Food (IUF), International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and World Food Program (WFP).  Through this initiative in 2007, these organizations tried to create awareness on this problem. Experiences from this initiative need to be gathered.

Legal measures: As mentioned above, laws banning child labour in agriculture are either non-existent or are insufficient.  No international convention has a blanket ban on child labour in agriculture.  That seems too radical a step.  Nevertheless, a good beginning would be a discourse on what are the legal provisions on child labour in agriculture; whether these are being implemented properly; acknowledging the hurdles to have a blanket ban on child labour in agriculture; how these hurdles need to be overcome if the Right to Education Act (in India) and the MDG goals in the rest of the South Asian countries becomes a reality. 

Allied activities: agricultural activities involve not just the farm activities but also several allied activities like fisheries, poultry, animal husbandry, a part of which is cattle grazing, milking cows or goats, etc.  A major part of the children’s time is spent on these allied activities.  For example, as per the ILO report on agricultural policy, 44% of the child labourers in the domestic sector come from families involved in tea plantations.  Also, the many cases of child labourers rescued by BBA from agricultural labour in Punjab and Rajasthan were equally involved in domestic labour as well. The domestic chores involve the allied activities of cattle grazing, milking of cattle etc.  Whether this is a normal scenario in case of trafficked child labourers, because they are available round the clock needs to be understood.  Thus, a mapping of the activities that the children do is an important task during the consultation.

Understanding the causes: The fact that child labour is a cause of and is caused by poverty and illiteracy is well known and well established.  But causes specific to agriculture would help devise appropriate solutions for the population affected.  Agriculture is largely a rural activity across the world and more so in the Indian subcontinent.  Government schemes addressing the rural population should be geared with two objectives in mind, 1) that no child is at work but instead is in school, and 2) that all adults are at work.  Conditions conducive for children to be in school and strict restrictions and monitoring to ensure that no child is employed in child labour in agricultural farms and in allied activities is important.  Similarly, access to work for adults and ensuring that they get their minimum wages is of utmost importance. In the case of India, schemes like the National Rural Economic Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and the Right to Education (RTE) should be implemented effectively so that adults can be employed, children in school and the causes for child labour mitigated.  The hindrances to appropriate schemes should be identified and properly removed.  The will of the Government from the National level to the Panchayat level is of utmost importance here. 

The consultation will be a platform for like-minded organizations to brainstorm, build a solid base of understanding the situation of child labour in agriculture sector from the participants and create an advocacy network. The expected outcomes of the consultation are as follows:

  • Opening a discourse on children engaged to work in the agriculture sector,
  • Advocating for a recognition of their rights and status at the national and international levels,
  • Lobbying for the establishment of relevant laws to address the elimination of child labour in agriculture.