Child labor: a notion hard to define in the field

The board plastered inside the main building of the plantation says clearly: « No child labor».


« If you see a child, we send him back home and parents are fined », explains Ricardo, one of the people in charge, driving HRWB and IIECL’s teams across the plantation.


« They do inspections and they fine if they find a child », confirmed a picker fewdays later.


The tracks soggy, bumpy, rutted by tractors, sink between plots of shrubs with glazed leaves. Groves of slender trees, where sometimes monkeys play, come to the coffee tree for shade they need. Vultures tirelessly rotate in a blue sky, which can be covered in less than an hour of heavy clouds pouring tropicaldownpours.


Pickers are men and women with vivid gestures, filling red berries into a basket tied to theirwaist. In a vast clearing appears a meadow with a long building on the ground floor, a school. Children play ball, barefooted, « to save their shoes, very expensive for them », pointed out Ricardo. Other younger children surround their schoolteacher. Premises are spruce, with bright walls and colorfulfurniture.


« It is a nursery and a primary school », explains Maria. « As for children, up to 14 years old, they go to high school, located fifteen minutes walk from the coffee bean processing plant».


A NGO dedicated to the fight against child labor using education, Casa Esperanza; works with the primary school’s director to address the specific problems of the migrant population. It therefore has privileged access to the exploitation to carry on itsfight.


As for the plantation, it « is a part of EducaFuturo, a program launched by the NGO Partners of the Americas, and they are proud of having implemented a school bus service. But…only for « permanent workers’ children ».

The management shows a willingness of refusing child labor, schools, and children not visible at first sight in the fields, an NGO on the spot ... The image is beautiful. However, this image is shattered following the thorough field studies.


A reality lessidyllic.

Specialized associations working in the field of child labor generally agree: in Asian, African and south American countries, agriculture is ripe with childlabor.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 60% of children aged between 5 and 17 years old who work do so in farming, which accounted for 129 millions of girls and boys. The Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as a person less than 18 years. He can work only at the age of 12 for light work and under safe conditions, 15 years old for non hazardous work, and 18 years old for hazardous work. According to convention n°182 and 138, hazardous work must be defined by States, but it is not always the case and every plantation has its specificity.

Associations met in Panama City by HRWB and IIECL teams at the Ministry of Education at the beginning of their investigation made a clear statement: « there is child labor everywhere ». And when there is high school, for children ages 12 to 14, « they are too far away».

The Ministry (MEDUCA) set up programs, including scholarships to encourage parents to send their children to school, and make "more and more inspections". But it comes up against internal migrants’ realities like Ngöbe Indians and their culture, explained the associations : « they don’t know  their  rights, underage want to work to be like « little man », some are already married with a family, young people have to financially help their parents…»

Added to this is a blur at the highest level of the state about the age that the young is allowed towork. « Everything is very general », noted a representative of the labor ministry. Toobtainthenumberoftheactabout the laborof childrenwillbeanobstaclecoursefor HRWB and IIECL, both at the ministry, as among unions in the coffeeindustry.

« According to labor code, it is not allowed to work before 14 years old. But in the family code, it is said 12 years », it is explained at the ministry. In farming, for "dangerous" works, «it is not allowed to work between 14 and 17 years», unless with a special permit, according to adecree.

A NGO noted that Panama signed the treaty on « worst forms of child labor» and published a decree, meaning that hazardous labor is forbidden before 18 years old. « But the constitution of Panama set the age at 15 years, and the constitution should take precedence over the decree… »

In the field, in the plantation visited for several days by the associations, the question keeps coming: between 14 – end of high school – and 18, what to do for these  young  children  of  families  of  migrants  housed  on  the  plantation?  No satisfactory response is given. Teenagers met among the pickers claimed to have worked in the plantation for several years…

This is the last day that a team member will fall upon children under twelve years old whose physic cannot deceive anyone.