Personal Injury

Investigating the Rights of Youths

Child Labor: An International Challenge

Source: "ILO Global Report on Child Labour cites 'alarming' extent of its worst forms," Monday 6 May 2002 ( ILO/02/19).

Ten years after launching a worldwide campaign against child labor, the International Labour Office (ILO) this year issued a landmark global study. It showed that despite "significant progress" in efforts to abolish child labor, an alarming number of children are trapped in its worst forms.

"A Future Without Child Labour," the ILO's most comprehensive study on the subject, found that 246 million children—one in every six children aged 5 to 17—are involved in child labor. Among its startling new findings, the report says that one in every eight children in the world—some 179 million children aged 5 to 17—is still exposed to the worst forms of child labor, which endanger the child's physical, mental, or moral well-being.

The report also says that of these 246 million children:

  • About 111 million in hazardous work are under 15 and should be "immediately withdrawn from this work."
  • An additional 59 million youths aged 15 to 17 should receive urgent and immediate protection from hazards at work, or else be withdrawn from such work.
  • Some 8.4 million children are caught in "unconditional" worst forms of child labor. These include slavery, trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of forced labor, forced recruitment for armed conflict, prostitution, pornography, and other illicit activities.

Analyzing the Problem
The report describes child labor at the start of the twenty-first century as "endlessly varied and infinitely volatile." Drawing on recent survey data, it says an estimated 352 million children aged 5 to 17 are currently engaged in economic activity of some kind. Of these, some 106 million are in types of work acceptable for children who have reached the minimum age for employment (usually 15 years) or in light work such as household chores or work undertaken as part of a child's education. The remaining 246 million children are involved in child labor that the ILO says should be abolished.

Child labor often assumes serious proportions in commercial agriculture associated with cocoa, coffee, cotton, rubber, sisal, tea, and other crops raised for world markets. Studies in Brazil, Kenya, and Mexico have shown that children under 15 make up between 25 and 30 percent of the total labor force in the production of such crops. The report notes that even "in many developed countries, agriculture is also the sector in which most children work" and that family farms are commonly exempt from minimum age legislation.

The informal economy, such as the part supported by subsistence farming, is that part of the economy in which workers are not recognized or legally protected. It is also by far where the most child laborers are found. According to the ILO analysis, this fact of child labor "represents one of the principal challenges to its effective abolition."

Some work, such as mining and deep-sea fishing, is obviously dangerous. Other work, which at first sight may appear harmless, may be similarly hazardous, especially for young, undernourished, and otherwise vulnerable children.

Identifying Causes and Solutions
The report lists many causes of child labor. While poverty is a major factor, there are many others. These include economic and political instability, discrimination, migration, criminal exploitation, traditional cultural practices, a lack of decent work for adults, inadequate social protection, a lack of schools, and the desire for consumer goods.

Child labor also exists because of a lack of law enforcement, the desire of some employers for a cheap and flexible workforce, and the low profitability and productivity of small-scale, family enterprises that cannot afford to pay adult workers.

In spite of the difficulty of addressing all these causes, nations of the world are trying. One such attempt is Convention No. 182—an international agreement to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. The ILO report insists that "the campaign for universal ratification of Convention No. 182 has given the general fight against child labour a new urgency and scope, by focusing world attention on its worst form." Since its unanimous adoption by the International Labour Conference in 1999, Convention No. 182 has been ratified by nearly 120 of the ILO's 175 member states.

In addition, the ILO Convention No. 138, an agreement to set minimum ages for laborers, was adopted in 1973. It had been ratified by 116 member states as of April 25, 2002.

On June 12, 2002, the ILO launched an International Day Against Child Labor. Its purpose was (1) to strengthen the international momentum created in recent years to stop child labor, especially in its worst forms, (2) to reflect on the progress made so far, and (3) to pursue fresh efforts to achieve a future without child labor.

National and regional programs have also flourished under the ILO International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labor. This effort, which began with six participating countries in 1992 and with a single donor government (Germany), has expanded to include operations in 75 countries funded by 26 donors. In 2001, the ILO launched its first Time-Bound Programmes aimed at eliminating the worst forms of child labor in specific countries within 5 to 10 years. The first programs are aimed at helping some 100,000 children in El Salvador, Nepal, and Tanzania.

According to the ILO report, real progress is being made in getting children out of damaging work and into school; in supporting them and their families to develop better, more secure livelihoods; and in preventing other children from being drawn into child labor.

"This foundation must be built upon, expanded, and sustained," Juan Somavia, Director-General of the ILO, said. "The effective abolition of child labor is one of the most urgent challenges of our time and should be a universal goal."

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