Migration and Child Labour

Migration and Child Labour

16 May 2013, 12:42

Here we consider the problem of child labour in the agricultural sector in the context of child migration. As we show, the children of migrants are especially vulnerable to exploitation, with serious adverse consequences for their welfare, most notably their health and education. Migrant child labourers are disadvantaged even in relation to native child labourers. Often they are paid less, work longer hours, less often attend school and face higher death rates.

Since 2000, the number of international migrants has increased from an estimated 150 million to more than 214 million persons today. According to the United Nations Population Fund, internal migration within countries is also on the rise, as people move in response to inequitable distribution of resources, services and opportunities, or to escape violence or natural disaster.

A small percentage of migrants are refugees fleeing armed conflict, natural disaster, famine or persecution, but the majority of migrants leave home in search of better economic and social opportunities. According to a report by the ILO, young people ranging in age from 12 to 24 account for approximately one third of all migrants. This number includes millions of children under the age of 18 who migrate internally or across national borders, with or without their parents.

People migrate in pursuit of better employment, better wages and a better quality of life. The bitter truth remains, however, that migrants – particularly child migrants – face serious challenges as a result. The challenges of migration are exacerbated when children migrate without proper documentation and to countries where legal protection, as well as basic services, such as education and health care, are lacking. These circumstances leave children vulnerable to exploitation, violence, sub-standard working conditions, non-payment of wages, a lack of education and the threat of being reported to the authorities.

This phenomenon occurs worldwide, in developed and as well as developing countries We cite here just two examples of the exploitation of migrant children in agriculture, from the United States and from Thailand.

In the United States, hundreds of thousands of children as young as seven years old are employed as farm workers. These children are often the children of migrants and work 10 hours or more a day with sharp tools, heavy machinery, and dangerous pesticides. They die at four times the rate of local working children.

While the United States has strict laws on child labour, there is a loophole where agriculture is concerned. The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits the employment of children under 14 and limits under-16s to three hours of work a day. This law, however, was drafted in the 1930s when farm work was commonly undertaken by children and therefore applies differently in the agricultural sector, where young people can work on farms if they are over 12 and there is no limit to the number of hours they can work in a day. According to Human Rights Watch, ”Because of a dangerous double-standard in US federal law, children in agriculture are working far longer hours, at far younger ages, and in far more hazardous conditions, than all other working children in the US.”

In the Mekong area of Thailand the ILO has undertaken a project to combat trafficking in Children and Labour and its report The Mekong Challenge (2006) notes that a significant number of younger migrants in sectors including agriculture face non-payment or under-payment of wages, and a requirement to work excessive hours in contravention of the Thai Labour Protection Act, which stipulates a maximum working day of eight hours. They are also involved in the use of hazardous equipment and suffer even more serious violations of forced labour and trafficking. They are often prohibited from leaving their place of employment – they are effectively imprisoned and indentured slaves. Legal obligations by employers are often ignored in relation to migrant workers and employers’ attitudes commonly reflect that foreign migrants do not deserve the same rights as Thai workers.

Throughout the world migrant children working in the food production sector, as in other sectors, are denied elementary rights, including the right to free quality education and the right to be free from child labour. The minimum that needs to be done is for all governments to comply with the  UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and with ILO Child Labour Conventions. If these steps were undertaken and enforced locally in all countries the problems faced by migrant child workers would be substantially improved.

Image: Shreynans Bhansali (CC License)

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