Children in Agriculture

Lorann Stallones and Huiyun Xiang

Key words: children, communicable diseases, disabilities, injuries, farm tasks

Children who live, play, and work on farms are exposed to agricultural hazards that include biological, physical, and chemical agents. The agricultural environment includes animals, insect vectors, machinery, structures, bodies of water, and extreme climates, both hot and cold. Exposures to agricultural hazards among children vary greatly based on the environment and the cultural conditions that guide farming activities. The type of agriculture in a region, the climatic conditions, and the agricultural practices, both current and historical, are important considerations in evaluating the nature of hazardous or salubrious exposures for children. While some children who live on farms may not participate in farm chores, others may be actively involved and more highly exposed. Further, children may be exposed to hazards of farming as bystanders in the workplace.

The definition of child is relative and varies across cultures and periods of time. Categories of children used by international labor conventions are the following:

1. Children are under 15 years of age (although in some places this age would vary by a year, making it 14 or 16)

2. Adolescents are 15 to 18 years of age (or in some places this category starts at 14 or 16).

In many countries, children's involvement in agriculture is viewed as a normal part of living on farms or as a useful part of their socialization and life skills development (1,2).

Agricultural work performed by children varies from short periods of light work after school to long hours of arduous work involving dangerous chemicals and work processes in subsistence or commercial production (1,2).

Children working in agriculture comprise 70.4% of all working children. Among working boys, 68.9% are involved in agriculture, and among working girls, 75.3% are involved in agriculture. Millions of people are involved in agriculture worldwide; in many countries children begin working on farms at a very young age. Agriculture encompasses the bulk of the world's poor, who work long hours for meager returns and under hazardous and difficult conditions. In India, the combination of poor nutrition and agricultural work in childhood has resulted in decreased stature, which impairs earning ability later in life. Children working on family-based vegetable farms in the Philippines have been exposed to infections from biohazards and chemicals in soil and water, and back problems from the heavy lifting of watering cans. They often work without protective clothing. Children working in South America peeling, cutting, and grading cashew nuts are exposed to cuts, skin irritation, and back pain from sitting or standing for long hours (2,3).

Children's work in agriculture often goes hand in hand with debt bondage, where the poorest families have no land or too little land to meet subsistence needs and become trapped in debt to their landlord or another person. Parents may have little choice but to bond their children into agriculture or domestic work to help their families repay the debt. In commercial agriculture, children comprise a substantial portion of the work force associated with global markets for coca, coffee, cotton, rubber, sisal, tea, and other commodities. Studies in Brazil, Kenya, and Mexico have shown that children under 15 years of age make up 25% to 30% of the total work force in various agricultural commodities (4,5).

Studies using rapid assessment techniques have suggested there are common characteristics of children in the plantation work force in a number of countries:

1. Parents have low levels of education.

2. Most children attend school but work after school, on weekends, or during vacations.

3. Children's wages are included with those of a working parent.

4. Children do not like the work but are expected to help with household expenses and/or school fees (4-6).

In some former Eastern Bloc countries, the transition of collective farms into private, family-owned farms has increased the need for unpaid family labor. However, in the Russian Federation, the same changes in farm structure have resulted in less forced involvement of children in crop harvesting, as the children are no longer harvesting crops as part of their school activities (2).

In developed countries, the majority of working children are found in agriculture. Three distinct groups of youth work on farms:

1. Children who live and work on farms owned or operated by their parents

2. Adolescents who are hired to work on farms not owned or operated by parents and whose parents are not farm employees

3. Children who accompany their migrant farm-worker parents (6,7)

A trend of increased percentage of hired farm workers between the ages 14 and 17 has been reported, with that age group comprising 7% of all hired farm workers. In the United States, an estimated 2 million children and adolescents under the age of 20 years lived or worked on farms in 1998. Protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act differs for children working in agriculture than for children working in other industries. In other industries, children must be 14 years of age before they can legally work, but children as young as 10 years old can legally participate in some aspects of farm work. Family farms are exempt from minimum age restrictions, and children may be employed by their parents on any farm owned or operated by the parents (7,8).

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