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Child labour ban increases poverty, but raises hope

Entering Rawsonville in the South African wine growing province of the Western Cape
(Lee Middleton/IRIN)

It took the loss of an 11-year-old farm worker's leg for farmers in South Africa's Western Cape Province to belatedly heed legislation outlawing child workers, but the consequences of respecting the law has had adverse and unintended effects on those it seeks to protect.

Child labour on farms was outlawed in 1996, two years after the demise of apartheid, but it was only in 2002 that farmers appreciated the cost of flouting the law, after Waronice van Wyk severed her leg and subsequent legal action forced a farmer in the Ceres district to pay R25,000 (US$2,500) in compensation, sending a message to other farmers that employing workers younger than 16 carried a heavy price.

However, the unpalatable truth is that child labour was a much needed additional source of income in the deeply impoverished region. "The money in the family is small now, if children aren't working," said Monica, a mother of three living in Rawsonville in the Breede River Valley, whose husband works on one of the numerous wine producing farms in Western Cape.

Susan Levine, a children's rights lecturer and researcher at the University of Cape Town, told IRIN: "Children will go to farmers and say, 'Please can I work the season, I really need the money,' and they [farmers] will say, 'No'."

Rigorous implementation of the legislation had decreased child farm workers significantly, but "Taking children out of the productive sphere has deepened childhood poverty and overall household insecurity in many instances," she commented.

''Taking children out of the productive sphere has deepened childhood poverty and overall household insecurity in many instances''

"[It] surely should have been predictable that without a radical restructuring of the political economy of farm life, including land dispensation for subsistence agriculture and a living wage, survival has become untenable," Levine said.

"Many of the kids I worked with would talk about how [the harvest] was one of their favourite times of year because they got some money, and they felt valued by their parents, so there was a lot of pride and a feeling of community and belonging. For a lot of children, being taken out of that yearly family seasonal labour has been quite devastating - they felt a real lack of contribution, and quite wayward and lost during school holidays."

Yet Levine said children also complained about the work environment and abuse by farmers. "You have a contradictory discourse from children weighing up the benefits and hazards."

After consulting children, police, clinicians, nurses, and social workers in the area, "the general direction is that children are looking for other ways to support themselves now that formal wage labour has been made illegal," she said.

Jennifer, 14, of Rawsonville in the wine growing region of the Western Cape

Lee Middleton/IRIN
Jennifer, 14, of Rawsonville in the wine growing region of the Western Cape
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Child labour ban increases poverty, but raises hope
Jennifer, 14, of Rawsonville in the wine growing region of the Western Cape

Photo: Lee Middleton/IRIN
Jennifer, 15, of Rawsonville

Turning to sex and alcohol

"So they are working in the sex industry, selling liquor, selling drugs, and maybe stealing food from people's homes ... children are looking for other ways to supplement what they see as the disempowering effect of the laws."

In 2008, Levine's research found children in Rawsonville were allegedly "having sex ... for money with truck drivers", although Constable Hurling Jordaan, a former social worker, now a police officer based in Rawsonville, denied any incidents of child prostitution, but conceded that older men "get involved" with underage girls.

The vacuum left by greater adherence to the law is not necessarily being filled by education or extramural activities. "Most of the kids here drink and do drugs because of problems in their homes. Some are still in school, but many end up on the streets," Jennifer, a 15-year-old high achiever at school in the nearby town of Worcester, who would like to be a lawyer, told IRIN.

"The problem is the government should pay the child grants until matric," said Aletta, an unemployed resident in the Rawsonville township of De Nova, and explained children leave school because of the lack of money. Government pays child grants until the age of 15.  

Ending child labour has slowly begun to have an effect, despite the poverty and hardship endured by most people in the area. "I've lived here for 22 years, and I've seen how people have changed," said Rovellen Elbrink, who was raised on the farm his parents worked on as labourers.

"People want to achieve new goals, like having their own business, and many farmers don't want children to work on farms but to find something else, to think bigger."

Lynette Haai, a social worker employed by the Graham Beck wine estate, told IRIN that "In the old days [during apartheid], there were only three posts for coloured [mixed race] people: teaching, nursing, or police/social work. Now, with South Africa moving in a new direction, the opportunities are opening."

Amid the contradictions and problems, it is clear that by diminishing the demand for their labour, the laws have helped children with the will and support to stay in school to do so.

Jonathan, 14, from Rawsonville, told IRIN. "I feel positive about my future. My grandparents and parents worked on the farms, but I won't because I want to make something of my life. I want to go to university and be a doctor to help children and give them good medicine."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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