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Child labour in Africa: Plucking the Green Gold of Tooro

The new ILO report "The end of child labour: Within reach" paints a mixed picture of child labour worldwide. While the global total of child labourers is on the decline, there remain some 50 million working children in sub-Saharan Africa. But the unprecedented international movement to end child labour is opening a window of opportunity for Africa's fight against the practice. ILO Online reports from a tea plantation in Uganda.

Article | 04 May 2006

TOORO, Uganda (ILO Online) - About 2,000 years ago the Kingdom of Tooro was founded here at the foothills of the Ruwenzori Mountains, in western Uganda. In 150 AD, the Greek astronomer Ptolemy called them the Mountains of the Moon.

This is the land of the Green Gold of Tooro - one of the most delicious and sought after teas in the world. Green Gold is grown here in the deep, rich and well-watered soils that are unique to the region. In Tooro and in the whole of western Uganda, at least 200,000 people earn their living by plucking the green leaves, earning about US $0.30 per day.

Among these workers are 40,000 children below the age of 10 working at the tea estates on a full-time basis. They are unable to attend primary school despite its being free in Uganda.

But things are changing. At Kyabaranga Primary school, 90 pupils who used to work on the estates are now back at their desks, learning instead of working all day.

"I felt good to find myself back at school and studying because this will benefit me in the future", says Alice Kemigisa, a 13-year old girl who used to work on one of the tea plantations.

In Uganda, the campaign for effective abolition of child labour was launched in 2003, and supported by the ILO programme for Strengthening Labour Relations in East Africa (SLAREA).

"To spread the campaign across the nation, six regional FM radio stations including the 'Voice of Tooro' were identified as the principal partners and disseminators of the values and messages in the two-year project", explains Joseph Katende, the coordinator of the ILO programme set up under the ILO programme for implementing the Organization's Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

One of the regular guests to the Work in Freedom talk show, at the "Voice of Tooro", is the Regional Secretary for the National Union of Plantation and Agricultural Workers of Uganda, Mr. Paddy Twesigomwe.

"We got support from the ILO. The actual number of children withdrawn from the tea estates was 365. The radio campaign is the best medium as it reaches most of the farmers. It has educated the parents, the guardians and the children themselves because it reaches every corner of Uganda", he says.

By mid-year 2005, 11 out of 16 plantations and factories had conformed to the required labour standards. But some of the owners were not willing to allow union activities within their premises or to discuss child labour.

The Mabale Tea Factory is an example of good practice. Facilitated by the European Union, it is now owned by 800 peasants following the privatization of public enterprises in Uganda in the 1990s. Without any tea estates of its own, the factory produces 3 million kg., about 10 per cent of Uganda's annual tea export, to the world market.

Kenneth Kyamulesire, the General Manager of Mabale Tea Factory, supports two children from the community himself to allow them to go to school and avoid child labour.

"Some of these children are orphans of HIV/AIDS victims left in the care of the elderly. But most of them are victims of ardent poverty. In a country with the best soils, climate and rainfall in Sub-Saharan Africa...", he explains.

Some innovative approaches on the part of Mabale Tea Factory management have enabled them to sell some tea abroad at a premium price through fair trade arrangements. This has also benefited the community.

"As part of their social responsibility, these factories and tea estates should be encouraged to give back part of their profits to enable the children go back to school. The central and the local governments of Tooro need to enact and effectively enforce appropriate legislation to make all estates and factories conform to the required labour standards", says Kyamulesire.

Africa at risk

Africa still faces a daunting challenge on the road to effective enforcement. According to the new ILO report, more progress is needed in the fight against child labour in sub-Saharan Africa, where the rates of population growth, HIV/AIDS infection and child labour remain alarmingly high.

"The reasons are not difficult to find. About one-sixth of the people living in the region are chronically poor, and this poverty has been worsening - the number of poor people is expected to rise from 315 million in 1999 to 404 million by 2015", explains Guy Thijs, director of the ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).

However, the 48 countries of the region are diverse and the picture is not uniformly grim. In 2003, 24 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa had economic growth rates of 5 per cent or more. In education, the picture is a little more encouraging, with primary school enrollments increasing by 38 per cent between 1990 and 2000. In Malawi, Mauritania and Uganda, enrollments doubled between 1995 and 2000. But 47 million African children are still out of school and of those who start primary school, only one in three finishes.

"Significant strides towards universal primary basic education happen to be one of the most effective ways of combating child labour, and a hugely beneficial investment too. According to ILO estimates, the elimination of child labour and its replacement by universal education in sub-Saharan Africa would yield net economic benefits amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars, over and above the evident social and intrinsic benefits", says Thijs.

But huge population growth compounds the problem of getting all children in school and keeping them out of child labour. At its current growth rate the population of sub-Saharan Africa doubles every 25 years. It is a young population, with 44 per cent under 15 years old.

Adding to the challenge is the epidemic of HIV/AIDS in Africa, which has one in seven of the world's people but two-thirds of all people living with HIV/AIDS. One consequence of the pandemic is that Africa had 43 million orphans in 2003. By 2010 the numbers will reach 50 million. The implications for child labour are stark.

Despite these numbers, Thijs is still optimistic. "In every crisis there is also an opportunity. Between the weight of Africa's past and the hopes for its future, the year 2005 was marked by an unprecedented international movement to put the plight of the continent front and centre of the world's attention."

Following the 2005 G8 Summit, the policy environment is now more conducive to effective action against child labour in Africa. The vast majority of African countries have ratified both the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138) and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182) of the ILO. Under the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), 24 African countries have now signed up to have their progress reviewed by their peers.

"All these developments represent a window of opportunity to tackle the underlying causes of Africa's child labour problems", said Thijs. "Capacity limitations are a major constraint in both the formulation and implementation of policies and programmes against child labour. The weakest links are probably the technical and organizational aspects. These need to be strengthened, notably for the social partners, including the various levels of the government and other major stakeholders."

Note 1 - The end of child labour: Within reach, Global Report under the follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, report to the International Labour Conference, 95th Session, Geneva, 2006.