22 March 2000
Kids put to work on British farms

By Johann Tasker

THE crisis in agriculture is biting so hard that some farmers are turning to child labour because they cant afford the cost of employing adult workers.

Youngsters are being drafted in to help out on family farms as their parents seek to reduce the higher labour bills associated with outside employees.

The revelation came to light as farmworkers demanded a 15% pay rise in a bid to avoid what they described as a labour crisis in British agriculture.

The Transport and General Workers Union formalised the claim during talks with the government-run Agricultural Wages Board on Wednesday (22 March).

Children as young as 11 years old are working in their spare time, according to a recent study co-ordinated by Dr Phil Mizen of Warwick University.

He said: “With the dire straits that some farming communities are in at the moment, it appears that family labour is an important additional source of help.”

One 12-year-old boy told researchers he drove a tractor on his parents sheep farm in Wales. The legal lower age limit for such work is 13-years-old.

Dr Mizen said: “We had a couple of farmers sons who were quite honestly doing the kind of work they shouldnt have been. It was quite alarming.”

It is illegal for urban businesses to employ any child younger than 13. But exemptions for agriculture allow children to work at a younger age on farms.

Local by-laws in some rural areas permit children as young as 10 to be employed in “light agricultural or horticultural work” if supervised by their parents.

Livestock farmers especially are finding it difficult to avoid cutting costs by slashing the number of adult farm employees.

Farm incomes have sunk so low that even farmworkers on 4.36 an hour for a 39-hour week earned almost six times more last year than an average hill farmer.

But the Transport and General Workers Union wants the minimum hourly wage raised to 5 and the working week reduced to 35 hours.

Barry Leathwood, the unions representative for rural workers, said: “Farm workers must have a decent basic standard of living to keep them in farming.”

Farmers were mistaken if they thought they could solve their problems by keeping children away from school to work on the family farm, he added.

Farm accidents have killed almost 70 children in the past year. But safety officials said they were unaware of any recent prosecutions against child labour.

A spokeswoman for the Health and Safety Executive said: “Family members often help out [on farms], but they might not be regarded as employees.”

The Farmers World Network, which promotes awareness of global farming issues, said it was a myth that child labour occurred only in developing countries.

But it would be a mistake to confuse the concept of child labour with child exploitation, said Adrian Friggens, the charitys executive director.

Many children also work to learn skills to survive as adults, and often take pride in contributing to their families, he added.

“Culturally, and indeed economically, child labour often has a very valuable contribution to make to rural society and communities.”