Child Labour in agriculture

A social bane that destroys nation's future: by Ranga Chandrarathne

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has declared its theme for its campaign against child labour as Child Labour in agriculture. It has been established that currently 246 million children worldwide are child labourers and 2.5 million in the developing countries.Working for long hours under the scorching heat of the sun, children risk hurting themselves with the "spading", the local name for the large heavy machete used in cutting sugarcane. They are also exposed to chemicals and fertiliser which they handle with their bare hands.

Many children carry out work which can threaten their lives, limbs, health and general well-being. The hazards they face run the gamut from the mixing, handling and applying of toxic pesticides to using dangerous cutting tools, to working in extreme temperatures, operating powerful farm vehicles and heavy machinery and working long hours.Though the situation is well-documented, child labour is widely used in Sri Lanka in the forms of domestic aid, helpers in transport sector and often as casual and unpaid workers in the agricultural sector.

Some of the child labourers are orphaned and do not have any place to stay at and are always on the move from one place of work to another, after being subjected to exploitation.Saman is a 15-year-old boy who worked in the agricultural sector as a so called helper. He is orphaned and used to stay with a farmer in cow shed. As he is fed by the farmer throughout the year, he is not being paid. However, he is given pocket money by the master for him to pay for tea or meals he occasionally has from mini-restaurants.

Once I got mee una (a common term for Leptospirosis which is born out of Rodent's urine) and spent couple of weeks in the hospital. My father died while he fell down from Athura (a grid of coir ropes connecting coconut trees).He was a toddy-tapper. Since then I started this roaming life. I have to get up early morning and virtually comb the paddy field with a branch of a dead tree to kill pests.

When pesticides have to be sprayed, I mix them often without any safety kit. During the harvesting season, I help to carry ripped paddy bushes to the gathering place. For the work, I was given food and drink and a little money, just enough to buy a cigarette.Education remains as a distant dream, though I love to be back at school, said Saman with face full of sorrow and agony.Sirimal is another child labourer who was compelled to work to support his mother as his father wastes his entire salary on liquor. During the harvesting season, Sirimal has to skip school to go with groups from one field to another, harvesting paddy. It is always a hard time for Sirimal as he has to work in an atmosphere filled with paddy dust.

At times, I bathe with paddy dust and had to carry three or four bags full of paddy from the field to the store room along the beaten track. During the off season, early morning I have to go to the field to chase the birds away and to uproot weeds.When the paddy began to ripen, I together with my sisters aged 8 and 9, go to the field to chase away the birds and even after school; we go back to the field and uproot the weeds until the dusk falls.I often missed lessons in the class and as mother could not finance the extra-classes, the missed lessons could not be caught up again. Some times, I was worn out as I had to upload bags of paddy onto a tractor and they were too much for me.

My mother hired a paddy field so we have to give the owner's share despite getting a bounty harvest or not. Only saving is our labour, said Sirimal who is still a minor. Swarna is a girl of 16 years, besides helping her mother in cooking she is compelled to work in the field as a reaper while barely able to carry the sickle, a symbol of poverty in rural Sri Lanka.Her family is not an exception in a far flung area where the dawn of development has not shed its golden rays. The poverty stricken family ekes out a living from a hired paddy field which though produces a bounty harvest, does not generate enough income to feed the family. These impoverished farming community in Bulathsinghala do not wish to identify themselves for reasons best known to them.

Besides helping my mother, I have to uproot the weeds in the field and during the harvesting season, I work not only in our field but also neighbouring fields as the neighbours work in our field. That means, no schooling for me. So I missed my studies.After school, I always go to the field, to pick up weeds and to kill pests by means of combing a branch which will entangle pests in the field.As we have to give the owner's share, we have to have a good harvest, at least, to save something for the family. It has always been a double burden working in the field and helping mother in cooking which has become a part and parcel of my life.

As we have no other option, it is the paddy fields that sustain our lives, Said Swarna, a child labourer representing a large segment of silent sufferers.As these people are entrapped in the subsistence agriculture, until and unless the government takes substantial measures such as creating more and more employment opportunities for rural youth to improve rural livelihoods and incorporating child labour issues into national agricultural policies and programmes and to reduce the urban, rural and gender gap in education, child labour will remain as a major factor that destroys every future of the nation.