THE DURBAN CALL TO ACTION on the Elimination of Child Labour was adopted on 20 May 2022 by representatives of governments, workers’ and employers’ organisations, UN agencies, civil society and regional organisations attending the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour in South Africa.

A group of UN human rights experts have welcomed the decision, and issued the following joint statement:

“The Call emphasises the need for urgent action because the Covid-19 pandemic, armed conflicts, along with food, humanitarian and climate change threaten to reverse years of progress against child labour. We echo the call for urgent measures to address this tragedy and remain deeply concerned that millions more children will be soon pushed into work, which can seriously jeopardise their physical and mental health. Child labour also produces a structural impact on the enjoyment of other human rights, including rights to adequate housing, education, right to the highest attainable standard of health, right to a healthy environment and often has its root causes in structural, racial and other forms of discrimination.

In 2020, the number of children in child labour around the world rose to 160 million, the first increase recorded in 20 years; today around 79 million children are engaged in hazardous work. Seventy per cent of child labour is concentrated in the agriculture sector with an estimated 108 million children working on farms and plantations around the world, which can cause short-term and chronic adverse health effects. The same agricultural system that diminishes biodiversity and increases pollution harms children. Tens of millions of children are engaged in hazardous work, where they are often exposed to toxic chemicals, including highly hazardous pesticides. To this day, children working in agriculture continue to be exposed to hazardous pesticides that are banned in the country of export, resulting in abhorrent double standards and discrimination.

It is often the case that after exposure to toxic pesticides, the violation of a child’s right to physical integrity from toxics cannot be undone. In this sense, agricultural workers are often neglected, and there is an urgent need for States and business to address the dramatic increase of child labour in the agricultural sector worldwide.

The Durban Call to Action includes 49 immediate and effective measures governments should take to end child labour with an emphasis on agriculture. Most crucially, this includes adopting an action plan to eliminate obstacles to the establishment, growth and pursuit of lawful activities of rural worker organisations to give agricultural workers a role in economic and social development.

The Call to Action further includes a commitment to reduce poverty and improve labour conditions of all people working in rural communities including peasants, fishers, forest dwellers, and pastoralists. It recommends ending their functional dependence on child labour, by securing adequate incomes through cooperatives, and representative organisations in line with relevant ILO instruments, reassessing piece-rate wage systems in agriculture; and recognising the need to guarantee adequate minimum wages for agricultural workers, sufficient to meet their needs. Strengthening social protection is also key in eliminating child labour. It protects households from extreme poverty which could, otherwise, lead to taking children out of school and putting them to work.

While there may be a place for children exceptionally and occasionally helping on family-run farms, childrens’ place is in school. The Call to Action commits States to realise the right to education, by ensuring universal access to free, compulsory, quality, equitable and inclusive education and training. When prohibiting child labour, Governments must also ensure that the necessary conditions for learning are met, including adequate nutrition, water and sanitation, healthcare, books and uniforms provided free of charge. Poverty cannot be a reason that children are not in schools.

Governments must act rapidly, effectively, and continuously to improve working conditions on farms and plantations to provide decent employment and eliminate child labour. Business enterprises must have due diligence processes in place to ensure that there is no child labour across the supply chains and, where it is found, to hold all their subsidiaries, contractors, and sub-contractors accountable in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Governments must ensure that all actors involved in the use of child labour are held accountable.

Governments must promptly implement the instruments already in place. For instance, the ILO Convention on the Right of Association in Agriculture is key to eliminating child labour and achieving decent work for adults in agriculture. We encourage States to ratify, domesticate and implement international labour standards. We also strongly encourage governments to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas.

Finally, we hope to see a conference to follow-up on the Call to Action and the development of strategies for better international coordination and cooperation on eliminating all forms of child labour, especially in the agriculture sector.”

* Source: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights