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Child labor on the rise, ILO says

Abu-Bakarr Jalloh
June 12, 2023

Some 160 million children worldwide are still being put to work, according to the International Labour Organization. It estimates that in sub-Saharan Africa alone, 72 million children are affected.

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A child carries clay bricks
A child at work in Lilongwe, MalawiImage: Amos Gumulira/AFP/Getty Images

The International Labour Organization, a specialized United Nations agency, first set aside June 12 to mark World Day Against Child Labor in 2002.

Some 21 years since its inception, the ILO's most recent report cite conflicts, crises and the COVID-19 pandemic as reasons for an increase in child labor. It has "plunged more families into poverty — and forced millions more children into child labor."

African children lack protection

According to the UN children's agency UNICEF, population growth, recurring crises, extreme poverty and inadequate social protection measures have led to an additional 17 million girls and boys engaging in child labor in sub-Saharan Africa over the past four years.

The Durban Call to Action,adopted at the 5th Global Conference for the Elimination of Child Labor in 2022, was set as the "blueprint for turning the tide against child labor" under a strong legal framework, universal access to education, and poverty alleviation.

But the ILO says "economic growth has not been sufficient, nor inclusive enough, to relieve the pressure that too many families and communities feel and that makes them resort to child labor."

The UN agency estimates that more than 72 million children in sub-Saharan Africa — nearly one in five — are affected by child labor.

Speaking at an event in Geneva to mark the occasion, ILO Assistant Director General Manuela Tomei said child labor is on the rise for the first time in 20 years.

"It worries me that in an era of many rapid advances …, so many children are still left behind," Tomei said. 

Going to the gold mine instead of school

Working children in African

The ILO describes child labor as any work or economic activity that deprives children of their childhood, interferes with their ability to attend regular schools, and is mentally, physically, socially, or morally harmful.

Child labor has deep historical roots in Africa. It is common for children to assist their families in activities such as farming.

However, the ILO differentiates between traditional family work and exploitative child labor that deprives children of their rights and education.

Cameroonian labor expert Alex Soho says poverty is the main driving factor for many communities to rely on child labor across the African continent. "The income is so low that they cannot afford to hire adult labor, so they have to rely on their kids," Soho said.

Cameroon's capital, Yaounde, is teeming with young vendors. Most are children aged between seven and 14 who occupy major intersections and markets — often working until well into the night.

Eight-year-old Kevin and 10-year-old Lea work in Yaounde's populous neighborhoods during school vacations. 

"I sell water to help my parents pay for my exercise books for the new school year," Kevin told DW.

"And I sell peanuts to pay for my school supplies," Lea added.

Four boys sifting through a body of water
Children at work on a diamond mining site in MozambiqueImage: Roberto Paquete/DW

Durban Call to Action

Chantal Zanga, a school principal in Cameroon, is concerned. "I'm against the street trading that children do," said Zanga. "The child has a right to protection. If we send them to the streets, who will protect them?"

It was against this backdrop that experts and child welfare activists met for the 5th World Conference on the Elimination of Child Labor in Durban, South Africa, last month, to discuss stricter measures for the protection of children. 

Tomei says the Durban Call to Action has one clear message: "The promotion of decent work for adults is key to eradicating child labor."

The ILO's 2023 action plan to eradicate child labor includes achieving social justice worldwide, ratifying a global minimum working age and effectively implementing the Durban Call to Action's three core strategies.

"I am convinced with renewed resolve, ending child labor is within reach," Tomei told the Geneva conference on Monday.

Four boys sifting through a body of water
Children at work on a diamond mining site in MozambiqueImage: Roberto Paquete/DW

Used as labor by parents

Child street vendors face daily dangers: traffic, weather and sexual violence. Juliette Lemana, 12, sells safous, a fruit also known as a plum, and roasted plantains in Yaounde.

"Mama sent me to sell," she told DW, adding that recently a motorcycle ran over her classmate. "Sometimes we come home at night and we can't find our way." 

Cameroon's law prohibits child labor, according to Pauline Biyong, president of the League for the Education of Women and Children. 

"Cameroon has ratified many articles to protect children. This phenomenon should be marginal, but unfortunately, we observe in our cities that children are used as labor by their parents. This is not normal," she said.

Two children on a dumptsite
Conflicts, crises and the COVID-19 pandemic 'plunged more families into poverty'Image: Conceição Matende/DW

Economic hardship has forced many children to work in the gold mines of countries such as Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, or as child soldiers in countries such as South Sudan.

Denied an education 

The ILO estimates that 2.1 million children work in cocoa production in Ivory Coast and Ghana. Around two-thirds of the cocoa produced worldwide comes from Africa.

Nestle has built classrooms for children in cocoa-growing areas. "The problem of child labor is real," Toussaint Luc N'Guessan, food giant Nestle's program manager, told DW.

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On the streets of Maiduguri in Nigeria's Borno State, many children work at the request of their parents.

"My father brought me here to learn tailoring," one boy told DW. "Sometimes, I earn 150 nairas ($0.36, €0.35)."

Adamu Umar — who has 15 children — admitted to DW that he also makes his children work as street vendors to supplement the family income.

But their commitment to their families is costing them dearly, as aid organizations complain that children are denied schooling and education and thus a better life.

Editor: Benita van Eyssen