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Is children's work in Africa more hazardous than in the United States?

Part 3 on why the U.S. should not ban cocoa imports from Ivory Coast

· Africa

Child labor exists everywhere in the world, including the United States, and it is as ugly in Africa as it is in America. But is child labor in Africa worse than child labor is the United States?

Surprising as it may seem, child labor in America is widespread and even legal. In fact, the Department of Labor has stated children of any age can work any job on a farm owned or operated by their parents. The U.S. Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which governs child labor in the United States, provides no minimum age for children working on small farms with their parent's permission.

Working on a farm is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States today, and children make up a sizable portion of the work force. However, the products harvested or transported by children in the U.S are not object of interstate trade blockages. Yet, children working in agriculture - a majority members of the more than 3 million migrant and seasonal farm workers estimated to be in the United States - are killed at a far higher rate than their peers in other industries.

Farm workers make up less than a fifth of America’s child workforce — perhaps much less — but suffered more deaths. The majority were younger than 14, some as young as 7 years old.By the way, 72% of the farm workforce in the U.S. is foreign born, most from Mexico and Central America.

Curiously enough, while Ivory Coast has ratified both the ILO Minimum Age Convention (no. 138) and the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (no.182), the United States has not ratified Convention 138.

Do U.S. senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) consider children working and child labor in the U.S. better than child labor in Africa? Do they think African parents, or for that matter, Latin American parents, love their kids any less? Do they defend using a double standard so that the children of others less fortunate than theirs can toil in fields in the U.S., generally for long hours and under hazardous conditions? Do they defend the legal loophole that places the United States in violation of its international legal obligations as surely as existing child labor places Ivory Coast in violation of the same international legal obligations?

Double standards are unacceptable

In their July 2, 2019 letter to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, the two U.S. senators specifically refer child labor in Ivory Coast as “too ingrained” and a “travesty” that cannot be addressed by “lax or nonexistent enforcement”. This is an indirect call to support a double standard when defining differences between children working, child labor and the worst forms of child labor.

According to ILO, “Whether or not particular forms of “work” can be called “child labor” depends on the child’s age, the type and hours of work performed, the conditions under which it is performed and the objectives pursued by individual countries. The answer varies from country to country, as well as among sectors within countries.”

Yet the senators, unwittingly or not, naively or not, state that forced child labor is “ingrained” and “prevalent” in Ivory Coast’s cocoa industry and because of it, this country merits an import ban into the U.S. of the product that lies at the heart of its export economy.

I am not defending child labor of any kind, anywhere. But the International Labor Organization Convention concerning the Minimum Age of Admission to Employment (Convention No. 138) does not prohibit children of any age from doing chores in their own household – an important avenue for learning responsibility – on family or small-scale farms, or work performed as part of vocational training in school. For children whose families live in poverty, working allows many opportunities to gain skills and earn income.

Both African and families in the U.S. benefit from the money their children’s hands can provide. And in both cases, children miss out on the benefits of education. In Africa, they never make it through primary school; in the U.S. the long hours and demands of farm work result in high school drop-out rates that are four times higher than the national average. In both Africa and the U.S., child workers without diplomas are left with few options other than a lifetime of farm work and the poverty that accompanies. In the U.S., that work is legal because it is an acceptable legitimate choice for parents, children and employers.

Is America’s “invisible” child labor better than Wes Africa’s “visible” child labor?

Perhaps senators Brown and Wyden didn’t bother to do their research. Because while Ivory Coast has made significant advancement in reducing the incidence of the worst forms of child labor, America’s child labor problem continues to be “invisible”. Enforcement of child labor laws by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division has declined dramatically because the resources just aren’t there.

Budgets for agencies that monitor workplaces shrinking, as some states are rolling back laws meant to limit the hours and jobs kids can work.Yet, the Department of Labor wants to propose relaxing current rules—known as Hazardous Occupations Orders — that bar 16- and 17-year-old apprentices and student learners from receiving extended, supervised training in certain dangerous jobs.

Based on the letter from senators Brown and Wyden, it would seem they consider it illicit for African parents to include their children in family farming but licit for parents in the U.S to have their children work in agriculture. What they seem to have overlooked is that the goal with respect to children working, whether in Africa or the United States, or anywhere else, is to prevent children from working at too young an age or for hours and under conditions that can harm their development or schooling.

Poverty is prevalent among small-scale farming families in Africa. In the U.S. poverty among farm workers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees. What makes children working on a family farm in Africa, because their parents can’t afford school fees, more reprehensible than children working in agriculture in the U.S. because their parents cannot afford child care?

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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