Global March

Vulnerable groups and pesticides exposure

Geneva, 22 June 2011: The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) will highlight the impact of pesticides exposure on child labourers in agriculture during an international conference to be held in Geneva, Switzerland, on 22 June 2011. The panel on “Vulnerable groups and pesticides exposure: Joining forces to reduce hazardous child labour in agriculture” is being held as part of the Fifth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention taking place from 20-24 June 2011 in Geneva.

The Convention on the “Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade” was adopted on 10 September 1998 by a Conference of Plenipotentiaries in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and entered into force on 24 February 2004. Its objectives are:

  • to promote shared responsibility and cooperative efforts among Parties in the international trade of certain hazardous chemicals in order to protect human health and the environment from potential harm;
  • to contribute to the environmentally sound use of those hazardous chemicals by facilitating information exchange about their characteristics, by providing for a national decision-making process on their import and export and by disseminating these decisions to Parties.

Work on and around the Convention is coordinated by a joint secretariat of FAO and the United Nations Environment Porgramme (UNEP). The Convention covers pesticides and industrial chemicals that have been banned or severely restricted for health or environmental reasons by Parties and promotes the exchange of information on a very broad range of chemicals. As such, its relevance to the issue of child labour in agriculture and hazardous work is critical as millions of children working on family and commercial farms and plantations are exposed to dangerous chemicals every day.

The responses of women, men and children to pesticides exposure can vary considerably. Children are particularly vulnerable to the risks posed by pesticides because:

  • they have a higher capacity to absorb toxic substances as they breathe, eat and drink more in proportion to their body weight;
  • their ability to successfully detoxify and excrete toxins differs from adults;
  • they have a lower capacity to assess risks;
  • they might play in or close to pesticide‐treated areas;
  • they often cannot read warning labels on pesticides.

Children and women can be exposed to pesticides not only as consumers, bystanders but also as workers since they constitute a significant rural labour force in particular in developing countries and countries with an economy in transition. Therefore, focusing on the theme “hazardous child labour in agriculture”, a panel of agriculture, labour and health experts from a number of UN agencies and other stakeholders will identify synergies between initiatives tackling child labour and the implementation of the Rotterdam Convention. According to the ILO, about 60 per cent of the estimated 215 million child labourers worldwide work in agriculture, which represent one of the three most dangerous sectors to work in at any age.

The joint ILO-FAO side event aims at raising awareness on hazardous child labour in agriculture, particularly with regard to the threat posed by pesticides and children’s greater vulnerability to exposure. The panellists will also make proposals on how to collect data on exposure to toxic chemicals to vulnerable groups, as an essential tool for policy-making process and legislative actions. In addition, the panel will identify synergies between initiatives tackling hazardous child labour and the Rotterdam Convention’s severely hazardous pesticide formulation (SHPF) programme. Clearly, further cooperation is needed among designated national authorities, policy makers, pesticide registrars, farmers, social partners, NGOs and the private sector, such as manufacturing and trading companies.

The conference and the panel are being held at a crucial moment more broadly related to the agricultural sector as Agriculture ministers from the G20 nations meet in Paris, France, to tackle volatile food prices. This comes in the wake of a new measure announced by the World Bank to provide protection from volatile food prices in developing countries. The new measure will allow food producers and consumers to hedge against volatile prices. President of the World Bank Mr Robert Zoellick called volatile food prices “the single gravest threat” faced by developing nations.

The World Bank also said that since June last year, rising and volatile food prices have led to an estimated 44 million more people living in poverty, under $1.25 a day. It estimated that there are close to one billion hungry people worldwide.

The new risk management tool for developing nations is called the Agriculture Price Risk Management (APRM). It is hoped that this measure will allow better access to hedging and thus shield consumers and producers of agricultural commodities from price volatility. “With this new tool, we can help farmers, food producers, and consumers protect themselves against price swings, strengthen their credit position, and increase their access to finance, said Mr Zoellick.

“Millions of poor, smallholder farmers struggle to raise output on tiny plots of degraded land, far from the nearest market,” said Mr Shenggen Fan, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). “Lacking access to decent tools, quality seeds, credit, and agricultural extension, and being highly susceptible to the vagaries of weather, they work hard but reap little.” Increasing the productivity of small-scale farmers will clearly help improve the food supply situation in regions where it was needed the most, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – the two regions which are not only home to the majority of small-scale farmers, but also to people living in poverty. In addition, improving productivity of small-scale farmers is a key intervention in tackling child labour in agriculture.

Sources: ILO, FAO, PIC, BBC

For more information on joint activities of the ILO and FAO in the context of “Food, Agriculture and Decent Work”, visit the joint web site which includes sections on child labour and youth employment by clicking here

For more information on the Rotterdam Convention and the Fifth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties in Geneva, click here

For more information on the World Bank’s APRM, click here


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