The Fine Line between Family Farm Work and Child Labor

posted Jun 21, 2013, 3:00 AM by Catherine A. Honeyman   [ updated Dec 23, 2013, 11:07 PM ]

Ishya Consulting recently assisted with an assessment of child labor in Rwanda's tea sector. While Rwanda's tea factories and cooperatives have made great strides in combating the most obvious forms of child labor, through measures such as checking identity cards and refusing to pay for loads of tea carried by children to collection points, children are still involved in tea production in one way or another. How does one draw the line between an acceptable contribution to family farm work, and harmful child labor?

The International Labor Organization (ILO) recognizes that "Participation in some agricultural activities is not always child labour. Age-appropriate tasks that are of lower risk and do not interfere with a child’s schooling and leisure time can be a normal part of growing up in a rural environment." Yet, many national laws -- including those of Rwanda -- prohibit children under a certain age from being paid for their work. And as Rwanda's rural economy becomes increasingly formalized, more and more family agricultural work becomes linked to cash payments.

Consider this common situation: the parents of a Rwandan family who have very little or no land of their own spend 7-10 hours daily plucking tea leaves, sometimes for neighbors who are landowners, and sometimes on the larger plantations owned by factories and cooperatives. Their child goes to school for five hours on most days, but as soon as they come home they join their parents in the field to add some extra leaves to their parents' baskets, which will be weighed and paid by kilo. Because the parents have no land to cultivate, most of their wages go to purchasing food. They depend on their children's extra assistance to have enough cash to pay for school supplies, uniforms, examination fees, and other educational expenses. Is this acceptable family help, or a form of child labor in a cash crop industry that needs more manpower for poorly-paid work? What if the child misses school occasionally in order to help earn enough cash to pay for their school expenses on other days? What if the child never has enough time to study and revise their notes outside of school? What if studying at home is simply not a widespread practice anyway, whether or not a child is working after school?

The practicalities of the issue often seem complicated. Added to this is the fact that perhaps the greatest child labor challenge posed in Rwanda's tea sector does not actually involve plucking tea -- it is found, instead, among the many children who need to care for their younger siblings while their fathers and mothers leave home for a full day of work on a tea plantation. High-quality and accessible child care is not just something for urban professionals. Working parents in rural areas need dependable child care too.

This is the topic of the next research project Ishya is supporting, with Plan Rwanda -- more on this soon!