The recent FAO report, Accelerating action to help to end child labour in agriculture in Asia, addresses a range of critical issues requiring coherent, multi-sectoral policy action. Among these actions is the need to reduce the risks associated with hazardous pesticides. The exposure of children to pesticides is one of several hazardous conditions in agricultural work. Hazardous work is a key determinant in defining child labour. Child labour refers to work that: is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children and interferes with their schooling.
As such, extreme hazards are associated with extreme forms of child labour. The Worst Forms of Child Labour Recommendation, 1999 (No. 190) refers in its definition of hazardous work to:
3. (d) work in an unhealthy environment which may, for example, expose children to hazardous substances, agents or processes, or to temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations damaging to their health;
Clearly toxic pesticides are among the hazardous substances that children are exposed to on farms and plantations. The ILO Code of Practice on safety and health in agriculture states that:
Children are considered to be at particularly high risk from pesticides. Their small size, rapid development, under-developed metabolism, diet and behaviour mean that smaller doses of toxins have a greater impact than in adults. Developmental effects can include disturbance of the nervous system, endocrine disruption and carcinogenity. Children can be exposed if they are present in the agricultural workplace, if their family members return home with pesticides on their clothing and skin, or if the family vehicle becomes contaminated. Special care must be taken to keep children away from pesticides, whether in concentrated or dilute form, and their containers, and to ensure that such chemicals are not brought into the home according to label recommendations.
It is in this context that an integrated approach to ending child labour in agriculture must incorporate both the reduction of pesticide use and the improved protection of the health and safety of agricultural workers. A key part of this approach is to ban the use of extremely hazardous pesticides such as paraquat and glyphosate (which cannot be used safely) and to reduce and restrict pesticide use according to the specific risks they pose to workers’ health and the environment.
In this regard the Safety and Health in Agriculture Convention, 2001 (No. 184) and the Code of Practice on safety and health in agriculture provide an important basis for policy and practice at national and local level. Yet in the Asia-Pacific region only one country – Fiji – has ratified Convention No.184. This must be urgently rectified. More governments in the Asia-Pacific region should ratify Convention No.184 as part of an integrated and more comprehensive strategy to end child labour in agriculture, as well ensuring that the agricultural work undertaken by adult workers that is so vital to rural development and food security is based on the right to safe, sustainable work.
The banning of extremely harmful pesticides such as paraquat and glyphosate and the effective protection of occupational safety, health and the environment (OSH&E) in agriculture are important preconditions for creating a safe environment for all agricultural workers. By reducing exposure to hazardous work, there is a possibility of safe, light work in agriculture that can be undertaken by children – as long as this work does not cause harm or interfere in children’s schooling. This of course must occur in a context where comprehensive policy action is taken to address the drivers of child labour.