April 2014, Volume 20, Number 2
More children work in agriculture than in any other sector, about 60 percent of all child workers, in part because half of the world's work force in developing countries is employed on farms, and many children work alongside their parents. In November 1996 the International Labor Organization estimated that 250 million children aged five to 14 worked in developing countries, including 130 million who worked part time and 120 million who worked full time.
The ILO's International Program on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) estimates that the number of children in child labor declined to about 170 million in 2012, including half who are involved in what the ILO calls hazardous work (www.ilo.org/ipec). Most child workers are in Asia, which has 60 percent of the world's workers, but the highest share of children in work is in sub-Saharan Africa.
Eliminating the worst forms of child labor is one of the four fundamental principles of the ILO, along with freedom of association, elimination of forced labor and no discrimination. ILO Convention 182 was approved in 1999, and has become one of the most rapidly ratified ILO conventions. Advocates note that the number of children who are working has been declining, but that more needs to be done.
In agriculture, most of the attention has been focused on five commodities: cocoa, cotton, sugar, tea and tobacco. Most efforts to eliminate child labor in the production of these commodities are top-down, as buyers refuse to purchase commodities that are produced with the help of children. Some advocates say that the result is often an adversarial relationship between supply-chain auditors and farmers, as the auditors seek to find child workers as farmers hide them.
The best-known top-down agreement is the Harkin?Engel or Cocoa Protocol signed in September 2001 to eliminate the worst forms of child labor in the production of cocoa, especially in West Africa. The US House in 2001 approved a bill that would have led to the development of a label for chocolate indicating that no child slave labor was used in growing or harvesting cocoa; the Harkin?Engel Protocol was signed before the Senate acted.
The Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University evaluated the effectiveness of the Cocoa Protocol in 2006, and reported that progress had been made but that children in C“te d?Ivoire and Ghana were still working in cocoa production. The cocoa industry is providing funds for child labor surveys, remediation efforts, and sustainable livelihoods for the households of cocoa growers, but child labor groups say that children continue to be employed in hazardous work producing cocoa.
Experience shows that top-down strategies are insufficient, and can simply drive child workers underground. Bottom-up strategies that include making schooling compulsory and ensuring that there are teachers and meals in schools can act as an incentive for parents to send children to school rather than to the fields. Some believe that having parents act as monitors to ensure that education and other services are provided by sending SMS messages can help to reduce child labor.
Some see the fundamental problem as low productivity in the agriculture most dependent on child labor. In Ivory Coast and Ghana, the two leading cocoa producers, yields are only a fifth of the 1,500 kilograms per hectare that can be achieved. Yields of 300 to 400 kilograms mean low revenue and reliance on child labor, according to some, suggesting that increasing yields could reduce child labor.