Childhood vs. Obligation: Child Labor

Millions of children are engaged in hazardous situations or conditions, such as working in mines, working with chemicals and pesticides, and working with dangerous machinery. They are everywhere, but remain unseen, hidden from view as domestic servants in homes, laboring behind the walls of workshops, or toiling out of sight in fields. Driven by a desire to protect those who often are the most vulnerable from deplorable and extreme working conditions, both the national and international communities have sought to implement laws and standards to regulate child labor. The protection of child workers has provided the movement behind which many of the first labor laws were formed, and it continues to be the impetus for defining what constitutes hazardous working conditions through evolving legislative measures.

According to the International Labor Organization globally there are 215 million child laborers of which approximately 115 million of those children are involved in hazardous work; for that reason alone World Day Against Child Labor 2011 was focused on hazardous child labor. Hazardous child labor is the largest category of worst forms of child labor and very common in agriculture. Hazardous work is defined as work that is by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, as likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children. Other worst forms of child labor prevalent in agriculture are trafficking, migration, and bonded labor.

Child labor interferes with schooling and is damaging for health and personal development. Child labor is defined based upon a child’s age, hours and conditions of work, type of work performed, and hazards involved. Although, the United States was one of the first signatories of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 182, current U.S. law allows children as young as 12 to work an unlimited number of hours in agriculture outside of school hours, despite it being consistently ranked as one of the three most dangerous industries—right behind mining and construction.

The vast majority of the world’s child laborers are working on farms and plantations, sowing, cultivating and harvesting crops, spraying pesticides, and tending livestock. Included in those numbers are child laborers from the United States. Child labor in agriculture is not limited to export commodities such as cocoa/chocolate, coffee, tea, sugar, fruits and vegetables, cotton, and tobacco but is often a facet of agriculture whose produce is marketed locally.

Child labor has an enormous cost for the children physically, educationally, and economically. Due to children’s bodies still being in the formative stages, exposure to workplace hazards can be more devastating and have lifelong effects. Not to mention, as the financial burden continues to grow and children fall further behind in their studies from the stress of the long hours and migration, it often results in children not attending school, hampering their future chances of escaping the cycle of poverty by finding better paying jobs.

While the United States has been a champion in promoting labor rights and decent working conditions worldwide, we have not done the same at home. We must assure our own compliance with the International Labor Organization’s Convention 182. It is critical that the U.S. equalize its own laws and improve enforcement within its own borders to truly lead others in the charge to end child labor globally.

Get involved and keep the momentum going throughout the rest of 2011. The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs has dedicated 2011 as “Year of the Farmworker Child.” Sign on to the campaign and continue to generate support while bringing awareness to the hardships faced by farmworker youth. Just as the U.S. was able to rally behind the world’s youth on World Day Against Child Labor, we should be able to inspire change in here for America’s migrant and seasonal farmworker children.

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