Child Labour thrives in Uganda’s tea plantations

A tea plantation in Hoima district. COURTESY PHOTO.

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures have continued to push children into hazardous forms of child labour in Uganda. Child labour  remains  rife in the agriculture sector, notably in the tea value chain, one of Uganda’s key cash crops.

One recent Friday afternoon at a sprawling tea estate in Hoima district, western Uganda, children hover around tin roofed shanty houses, that dot along the five-square kilometer tea plantation. Known as labour villages, children, and their parents are all workers, spending countless hours each day of the week to pick tea leaves.

10 year old John Opio lives in the estate with his father and mother .Since the closure of schools he usually tags along with his parents to work at the tea plantation.

“I accompany my mom to the plantation to pick the tea every morning,”  he says “ I don’t have anyone to stay with at home since we are not going to school anymore”

Tea is one of Uganda’s leading exports. Uganda’s tea industry is booming annual exports of tea average 65,000 metric tons annually, worth $120 million.

15 year old Onapito Samuel works on the farm too .He dropped out of school three years ago as his parents couldn’t afford school fees. “ I couldn’t find work outside the plantation so I decided to work with my father and earn some income ,” he says “This is the work I am used to and I hope to get a permanent placement when I am much older”

Child labour refers to Children 5-11 years engaged in any economic activity; or children 12-13 years doing work other than, light work ‟or do work beyond 14 hours a week”; or children 14-17 years involved in hazardous forms of labour or working for an equivalent of 43 hours in a week or beyond.

Anthony Ayesiga the district labour officer Hoima district acknowledges that child labour is prevalent on the tea plantations and among out growers especially during the peak harvesting season.

“The covid-19 pandemic has pushed more children into plantations, most of these end up working on the tea plantations for a living”

Most of their parents are not sensitized about child labour and look at children as part of the family unit that must work and contribute to the family, Mr.Ayesiga explains.

Ayesiga says that the district leadership has put in place community by laws which are interpreted for communities and has been sensitizing the communities about child labour through radio talk shows and programmes. These by laws require parents to keep their children in school. Some parents who let their children work on plantations are arrested.

Ugandan legislation prohibits the employment of children under the age 12. National labour law prohibits the involvement of children 12-13 in any employment.

However,a report released in April by  the Uganda Bureau of Statistics indicated that some 74,000 children in Hoima district, representing around 26 per cent of the total children are engaged in hazardous work. The proportion of working children in commercial crop farming was 18 per cent,

The number of children caught in child labour worldwide has equally risen to 160 million,an increase of 8.4 million in the last four years, while 9 million additional children are at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of the  covid 19 pandemic .This is according to a recent report released by the International Labour Organisation and UNICEF Child labour :global estimates 2020:Trends and the road forward .This report only reaffirms what is happening in Uganda .

Three years ago, George Okello came with his parents when they took up jobs as tea leaves pickers in Hoima district. With no school to attend since last year, the 12-year old now tags along with his parents to pick tea every day.

“I help my parents to hit their targets by picking many more baskets of tea,” he says “I like that I am helping my parents get more money but sometimes the hours are long and exhausting”

Child Labour remains a major challenge to Uganda’s socioeconomic transformation.

Charles Katungi, a local leader in Bugambe labour village says local leaders are finding it hard to prevent child labour with a lot of idle children near the tea estates.

“It’s a big challenge for every one,” he says “Once these children start earning some little money, they lose interest in education  because they work with adults, they also start bad vices like underage drinking and drug abuse”

In May  President Yoweri Museveni launched the Second National Action Plan on the Elimination of Child Labour 2020/2021 – 2024/2025, demonstrating a strong policy commitment at the highest level.The objective of the National action plan is to eliminate the worst forms of child labour and at the same time lay a firm foundation for children’s rights to be respected, protected and fulfilled.

However even with the necessary legal frameworks in place children continually engage in the worst forms of child labour primarily in hazardous forms of agriculture and domestic service.

International Labour Organisation under its Accelerating Action for the Elimination of Child Labour in Supply Chains in Africa (ACCEL AFRICA) project addresses child labour in selected supply chains in Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria and Uganda with focus on some of the most widely traded agricultural commodities including cocoa, coffee, cotton, tea and gold. The project is implemented in line with The African Union Action Plan on child labour, the ILO fundamental principles and rights at work, and in relation with the ILO conventions No 138 and 182 which set the legal ground for national actions to accelerate the elimination of child labour in all its forms as a critical step for ensuring that economic growth leads to increased equity, social justice and less poverty.

The project aims to strengthen partnership and knowledge sharing among global supply chains actors working in Africa by engaging specific target groups to raise the awareness and spur action towards eradicating child labour.

The Uganda National Household Survey 2019/20 conducted by Uganda Bureau of Statistics indicates that there’s been a 28% increase in child labour incidences countrywide. The loss of incomes , livelihoods, combined with school closures due to covid19 pandemic contributed to increased child labour as more children have been forced to enter the workforce in order to help their families survive.

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Diana Taremwa Karakire

Diana Taremwa Karakire is a freelance Journalist based in Uganda. She is passionate about environmental issues and writes on climate change, renewable energy, food security and human rights. In 2020, she was chosen to be among the eight young journalists in Africa to participate in the Climate Tracker Environment reporting fellowship. Her work has been published by Equal Times, Africa Business Magazine, Climate Tracker and the Earth Journalism Network.

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