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Backgrounder: Child Labor in Agriculture
Of nearly 250 million children engaged in child labor around the world, the vast majority- 70 percent, or some 170 million-are working in agriculture. Child agricultural workers frequently work for long hours in scorching heat, haul heavy loads of produce, are exposed to toxic pesticides, and suffer high rates of injury from sharp knives and other dangerous tools. Their work is grueling and harsh, and violates their rights to health, education, and protection from work that is hazardous or exploitative.

According to the International Labor Organization's new report on child labor, the number of children working in agriculture is nearly ten times that of children involved in factory work such as garment manufacturing, carpet-weaving, or soccer-ball stitching. Yet despite their numbers and the difficult nature of their work, children working in agriculture have received little attention compared to child labor in manufacturing for export or children involved in commercial sexual exploitation.

In investigations in Egypt, Ecuador, India, and the United States, Human Rights Watch has found that the children working in agriculture are endangered and exploited on a daily basis. Human Rights Watch found that despite the vast differences among these four countries, many of the risks and abuses faced by child agricultural workers were strikingly similar.

In Egypt, Human Rights Watch examined the cotton industry, Egypt's major cash crop, where over one million children work each year to manually remove pests from cotton plants. In Ecuador, where nearly 600,000 children work in the rural sector, the organization investigated conditions for children working in banana fields and packing plants. In the United States, Human Rights Watch examined conditions for the estimated 300,000 children who work as hired laborers in large-scale commercial agriculture, planting, weeding, and picking apples, cotton, cantaloupe, lettuce, asparagus, watermelons, chilies, and other crops. In India, Human Rights Watch looked at bonded child laborers working in agriculture as part of a larger study of bonded child labor. There are as many as 15 million bonded child laborers in India, most of whom are Dalits (untouchables) or lower caste. More than half, and possibly as many as 87 percent of these bonded child laborers work in agriculture, tending crops, herding cattle, and performing other tasks for their "masters."

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states, "Every child shall have . . . the right to such measures of protection as are required by his status as a minor, on the part of his family, society and the State." The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that children-all persons under eighteen "unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier"-have a right "to be protected from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development." All states parties to the Convention-every government in the world except for the United States and Somalia-are required to "undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in this Convention."

Abuses of Child Agricultural Workers:

Ages and hours of work:

Child agricultural workers often begin work at early ages, and may work twelve or more hours a day. In India, bonded child laborers as young as eleven often work sixteen or seventeen hours a day, typically beginning at 5 or 6 a.m., and continuing until 9 or 10 at night. Some are expected to work 365 days a year. In Ecuador, children working in the banana sector typically start work at ages ten or eleven, though some begin as early as age eight. Although some work only five hours a day, Human Rights Watch found that the vast majority worked between nine and thirteen hours a day.

In the United States, children interviewed by Human Rights Watch began working in the fields as early as age twelve. They routinely worked twelve-hour days, and during peak harvest season, sometimes worked fourteen hours or more. Children may begin working as early as 4 a.m., and may spend two hours or more each morning and evening traveling to the fields where they work.

Children working in cotton pest control in Egypt are typically between the ages of seven and twelve. For periods of up to ten weeks each year, they work eleven hours a day, seven days a week.

Pesticide exposure:

One of the greatest threats to the health of child agricultural workers is exposure to pesticides. In Ecuador, Egypt and the United States, children reported working in freshly sprayed fields, and even working in fields while they were being sprayed. Children interviewed reported symptoms of exposure including headaches, fever, dizziness, nausea, rashes and diarrhea. In severe cases, pesticide exposure can lead to convulsions, coma and death. Long term effects also include cancer, brain damage, sterility or decreased fertility, and birth defects.

Child agricultural workers are often not told of the dangers of pesticides, or how they can protect themselves. In the United States, not one of the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch had received training about the dangers of pesticides, safety measures, or what to do in case of exposure. Some did not even know what pesticides were. "Pesticides? Was that the medicine they put on [the crops]?" said one girl. "No, I don't know anything about that."

In Ecuador, 90 % of child banana workers interviewed by HRW stated that they continued working while fungicides were sprayed from airplanes flying overhead. They described trying to protect themselves by hiding under banana leaves, covering their faces with their shirts, or placing banana cartons on their heads. One boy said, "I went under the packing plant roof until the [fumigation] plane left-less than an hour. I became intoxicated. My eyes were red. I was nauseous. I was dizzy. I had a headache. I vomited."

In all three countries, children may participate in applying pesticides to crops. In Egypt, children sometimes operate motorized pumps that saturate cotton plants with pesticides. Half a dozen children may help carry the pump's long hose, becoming heavily contaminated with pesticides in the process. In Ecuador, children frequently handle pesticide-treated plastics used to protect banana stalks in the fields, and spray fungicides onto bananas being prepared for shipment in packing plants. Many of the children reported to Human Rights Watch that they did not use any protective equipment, even gloves, when handling the chemicals.

In Egypt, two of the five pesticides recommended for use by the government are categorized as "highly hazardous" by the World Health Organization. In Ecuador, one pesticide in common use is the subject of over one hundred lawsuits from around the world, alleging that the chemical is responsible for serious birth defects, including cleft palate and being born with no eyes.

Pesticide risks are particularly acute for children. Because their organs are still developing, they are less able than adults to expel toxins from their body. Their breathing rate is much higher than adults, and they have more skin surface per unit of body weight than adults, allowing them to both breathe in and absorb higher concentrations of toxic chemicals.

Injuries and Disabilities:

Children working in agriculture suffer high rates of injuries. They frequently suffer cuts from sharp knives and falls from ladders. They risk back injuries from hauling heavy loads of produce. They may be crushed or maimed by tractors and other heavy equipment.

In the United States, agriculture is second only to mining for occupational fatalities. Child farmworkers make up only 8% of children who work in the United States, yet account for 40% of work-related fatalities among minors. An estimated 100,000 children suffer agriculture-related injuries each year in the United States.

In Ecuador, children commonly use sharp knives and machetes to cut yellow leaves off banana plants, and curvos-short, thick, crescent-shaped blades with wooden handles-to cut bananas off their stalks, to cut plastic bags used to cover banana stalks, and for other tasks. A quarter of the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch had cut themselves with these sharp tools at least once.

In Ecuador, boys also haul heavy loads of bananas from the fields to packing plants using a harness system attached to an iron pulley riding on cables. One boy, now fourteen, reported that when he was ten years old, he would pull twenty banana stalks (each weighing 50 to 100 pounds) at one time from the field to the plant. The distance from the field to the plant was two kilometers; he would make five or six trips per day, each trip taking about one hour. Dragging the heavy fruit can cause back injuries to children. In addition, stalks of bananas or wheels on the cables sometimes fall off and strike children, causing serious injuries.

Water and Sanitation:

Child agricultural workers often must work in the full sun in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit or 40 degrees Celsius. Under such conditions, health experts recommend that workers drink two to three gallons of water a day. Without adequate drinking water, workers run the risk of devastating dehydration and heat illnesses that can cause death or brain damage. However, many child agricultural workers do not have access to water, or are provided with water contaminated with bacteria or pesticides.

In Egypt, some children worked from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m, but reported that only during two breaks during the day did their foremen allow them to drink. In both the United States and Ecuador, some children reported that a lack of potable water forced them to drink from canals that drain excess water from the fields. These canals are often contaminated with pesticides, fertilizers, bacteria and human waste. Children may also be forced to use their earnings to purchase water, soda or beer from their employers at inflated prices.

One boy in the United States reported, "We had to share water from one big jug. It wasn't enough. You couldn't drink as much as you wanted…. An old man took us there [to the field] in the morning, set us up, then would come back in the afternoon to pick us up. If you ran out of water, if you passed out, tough."

In the United States, agricultural employers are required by law to provide toilet facilities, drinking water, and water for handwashing. However, nearly all of the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported working in fields or orchards where one or more of these requirements were not met.

Lack of toilet facilities contributes to the spread of parasitic infection among workers. It is particularly dangerous and humiliating for girls, who may be forced to choose between public urination-more obvious and awkward for females-and urinary retention, which can cause severe discomfort and urinary tract infections. Some workers also report limiting their fluid intake to prevent urination, at severe risk to their health.

Lack of water for handwashing also is frequently unavailable. In addition to being unsanitary, unwashed hands virtually guarantee that pesticides will be ingested when workers eat their lunch.

Ill-treatment and Sexual Harassment:

In Egypt, Human Rights Watch found that children working in cotton fields are routinely beaten. Children typically gauged the leniency of a foreman by the severity and frequency of the beatings he administered. One ten-year-old boy worked under two foremen. "One of them I hate; the other one I like. The one I hate used to beat and kick me whenever I missed a leaf. The other one beats and kicks me lightly."

Severe maltreatment caused some children to quit work entirely or seek employment under the supervision of a different foreman. A nine-year-old Egyptian girl described a steady process of attrition from her work group. "The last work group I was in started with twenty-two [children], but you know, children don't like to be hit, so they turn up in another foreman's group. Our group ended up with twelve."

Bonded child agricultural workers in India also frequently experience physical abuse. An eleven-year old told Human Rights Watch, "I do not like work; it is hard and there is no time limit. When I'm sick, the master won't let me stay home. If I try to take time off he will scold me and beat me and take me back to the fields. Sometimes he beats me because he says I am working slowly." A girl who began working in bondage at age nine reported that her master beats her, and yells and curses at her.

In both the United States and Ecuador, girls working in the fields reported sexual harassment by their supervisors. In Ecuador, a twelve-year-old reported that when she bent down to pick up plastic bags, her boss would say, "There is a good place to stick my balls." An adult packing plant worker in Ecuador told Human Rights Watch that both supervisors and other male workers grabbed the breasts and buttocks of girls.

In the United States, girls are routinely subjected to sexual advances by farm labor contractors and field supervisors. If they refuse, they-and members of their family-face retaliation in the form of discharge, blacklisting and even physical assault and rape. An eighteen-year old said, "Everyone is scared to say anything because they threaten them. If they say something they will lose their job."

Impact on Education:

In Egypt, cotton pest control work usually takes place during the summer months when children are not attending school. However, in other cases, agricultural work can have severe consequences for children's education. Long hours of work cause children to miss classes and leave them too tired to study. Eventually they fall behind and frequently drop out completely. In Ecuador, the majority of children with whom Human Rights Watch spoke had quit school before the age of fifteen. Of those still in school, several explained that they often missed school to work. In the United States, only 55 percent of farmworker children in the United States finish high school. Of the dozens interviewed by Human Rights Watch, nearly every one had dropped out of school for at least one extended period of time.

In India, many bonded child laborers working in agriculture have never been to school. Once they are bonded-often at age eight or nine-their long hours of work frequently make schooling impossible. One thirteen-year old boy who worked from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. tending sheep and picking mulberry leaves was enrolled in a non-formal school run at night, but told Human Rights Watch, "When I have a lot of work, I am not allowed to come to the school. . . [t]he owners complain I am not earning enough."


Child agricultural workers work for very low wages, and are often paid less than their adult counterparts. In Egypt, children working harvesting cotton in one region earned US $1.08 per day, while men earned US $1.63 per day and women earned US $1.36. Children working in cotton pest control-a type of work typically not done by adults -earn between US $0.68 and US $0.95 per day.

In Ecuador, the legal minimum wage for a banana worker is US $5.85 per day. Adult workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch earned, on average, approximately US $5.44 per day, while children averaged only US $3.50, 60 percent of the legal minimum wage for banana workers.

In the United States, the legal minimum wage is $5.15 per hour. Approximately one-third of the child farmworkers interviewed by Human Rights Watch earned significantly below minimum wage, and some were paid as little as $2.00 per hour. Some children were instructed by their supervisors what to say if they were approached by a government inspector: "If they ask how much I pay you, say $5.50" or "say $6.00."

In India, children bonded into agricultural labor are working to pay off a debt. Parents or other relatives promise the labor of the child to an employer in exchange for a sum of money. The children then spend long hours over many years in an attempt to pay off these debts. Due to high interest rates charged and abysmally low wages, they are usually unsuccessful. Often the yearly or monthly sum deducted from the loan is not even one-quarter or one-third of the prevalent daily wages, let alone the legal minimum wage.

One thirteen-year old Indian boy was bonded for two years in exchange for a 7,000 rupee (US $143) advance given his family in order to repay another loan. The boy told Human Rights Watch that for each day of labor, a "wage" of 20 rupees (US $0.40) is applied against the loan. At a rate of 20 rupees a day, the loan would be repaid in less than one year, but inflated interest rates will ensure that the boy labors for at least twice that period of time.

Laws and their enforcement:

In some countries, such as Egypt and Ecuador, national laws set appropriate limits on both the ages and hours at which children can work and, if enforced, would help to protect children from abusive labor conditions. In other cases, like the United States, laws are clearly inadequate and fail to protect children from violations of their rights.

In both Ecuador and Egypt, national law prohibits children from working before the age of fourteen, but allows twelve and thirteen-year olds to work as apprentices as long as the work does not threaten their health or education. Egyptian children and Ecuadorian children under the age of fifteen are not allowed to work for more than six hours a day. In Ecuador, children between fifteen and eighteen are allowed to work for seven hours a day. Other regulations and legal provisions are also intended to protect working children, and Ecuadorian law explicitly prohibits hazardous work, including handling toxic substances and tasks that are "considered dangerous or unhealthy."

Unfortunately, both governments fail to enforce these laws, placing hundreds of thousands of children at risk and violating their rights to health and development.

In the United States, child agricultural workers receive fewer legal protections than other working children. U.S. labor law allows children in agriculture to work at younger ages, for longer hours and under more hazardous
conditions than children in other jobs. While the law allows children as young as twelve to work unlimited hours in agriculture, children in other occupations cannot work before age fourteen, and can only work three hours on a school day until age sixteen. In addition, even limited protections in existing law are not adequately enforced. Only a tiny fraction of child labor violations are ever uncovered by the Department of Labor, and penalties are typically too weak to discourage employers from using illegal child labor.

Bonded labor, whether in agriculture or any other area, is illegal under India law and by law, bonded laborers are to be released and rehabilitated and their employers prosecuted. The law also prohibits children under age fourteen from handling pesticides or insecticides. However, Human Rights Watch has found that the Indian has failed to adequately enforce its own laws; even where children are identified and released from bondage, often through NGO's intervention, they often receive no rehabilitation and their
employers not penalized.

Egypt, Ecuador and the United States all are party to the ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor. The Convention prohibits "work which, by its nature of the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children." Each country is expected to determine what constitutes such work, although the ILO's Recommendation 190 recommends that such work include "a) work which exposes children to physical, emotional or sexual abuse; b) work underground, under water, at dangerous heights or in confined spaces; c) work with dangerous machinery, equipment and tools, or which involves the manual handling or transport of heavy loads; 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; or e) work under particularly difficult conditions such as work for long hours or during the night or work which does not allow for the possibility of returning home each day."

Based on Human Rights Watch's findings, child agricultural workers face many of the conditions outlined by the ILO as work likely to harm their health and safety, in particular, work with dangerous machinery, equipment and tools; work in an unhealthy environment, including exposure to hazardous substances, notably pesticides; and work for long hours. In addition, girls may also face the danger of sexual abuse.

The conditions for child agricultural workers also violate the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every government except the United States and Somalia. The Convention states that children have the right "to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development." (Article 32) Article 24 recognizes the right of all children to a high standard of health, article 28 recognizes the right of all children to education, and article 34 states that children should be protected from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. Finally, article 3 of the Convention states that "In all actions concerning children . . . the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration."


The extraordinary numbers of children working in agriculture -some 170 million worldwide- and the severe abuses they endure demand that governments, employers and trade unions prioritize protections for child agricultural workers as part of their strategies to end child labor.

Human Rights Watch recommends that all governments:

  • Ratify the ILO 182 Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, if they have not already done so, and ensure that their national laws are consistent with the Convention and Recommendation 190. National laws should explicitly prohibit all individuals under the age of eighteen from using dangerous tools, from hauling heavy loads, from working long hours, from handling pesticides, and from being exposed to pesticides in the workplace. National laws should also explicitly prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace, establishing separate and more stringent penalties for cases in which the victim is a minor.
  • Take measures to ensure the effective implementation of Convention 182. Such measures should include the allocation of resources to provide for a sufficient number of labor inspectors targeting child labor in agriculture, proactive monitoring, and unannounced on-site inspections.
  • Ensure that restricted-entry intervals (REIs)-the time after pesticide application when entry into the treated areas is banned or limited -are clearly established in government regulations and vigorously enforced. Special REIs for children should be established, taking into consideration the greater risks they face from exposure to toxic chemicals.
  • Ensure that all workers, including children, receive full information and training from their employers about occupational illnesses and injuries related to agricultural work, including those associated with exposure to pesticides. Such training should be conducted regularly and be understandable by children. Employers should also provide all workers, including children, with appropriate protective equipment and train them in methods of protecting themselves from workplace hazards.
  • Ensure that children and their families are aware of the rights of children.
  • Undertake comprehensive surveys to determine the scope and scale of child labor in the agricultural sector, the number and nature of injuries or illnesses suffered by children working in agriculture, and disaggregate the data by sex and age.
  • Ensure that all children receive free and compulsory primary education. School fees and other associated costs of education, including costs for books and uniforms, should be waived, or scholarship programs developed for children whose families are unable to afford them. Special educational or vocational programs should be developed for child farmworkers who have dropped out of school.
  • Violators of child labor laws should be sanctioned to the fullest extent of the law. Governments should consider increasing fines for child labor violations and dedicating a portion of the fine to the rehabilitation of child workers.
  • Ensure that child agricultural workers who labor in hazardous conditions in violation of ILO Convention 182 and suffer workplace accidents or illnesses are provided with free health care.
  • Establish mechanisms to monitor the treatment of children working in agriculture and ensure that effective complaint mechanisms are available to children and their families.

    Human Rights Watch recommends that all corporations who employ children or with suppliers who employ children:

  • Ensure that children's human rights are respected on all directly owned and supplier farms and plantations by adopting effective monitoring systems to verify that labor conditions on these facilities comply with internationally recognized child labor standards and relevant national child labor laws, reporting annually on compliance, and, where the facilities fall short, by providing the economic and technical assistance necessary to bring them into compliance.
  • Ensure that pesticides potentially harmful to children are neither sanctioned for use nor applied in practice on directly owned or supplier farms and plantations.
  • Immediately turn over to the appropriate national authorities any information regarding violations of national child labor laws or international child labor standards on supplier farms and plantations.
  • Provide adequate support for underage workers, as defined by the ILO Minimum Age Convention, to attend school or an appropriate academic alternative in lieu of working.