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Off the farm, in the classroom

December 21, 2011

As child labor declines, one expert tells DW kids tend to work on small-scale farms where they can't get a good education. Improved access to the classroom would further reduce the use of child labor.

Five girls at a school bench in Afghanistan
Going to school helps children earn more as adultsImage: DW

Patrick Quinn is a senior technical specialist at the ILO's International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC). He spoke to Deutsche Welle about where child labor is common and what can be done to stop it.

Deutsche Welle: How many children are affected around the world?

Patrick Quinn: In May 2010 we produced a new global report with estimates on the numbers of children in child labor worldwide, and we're estimating that there's in the range of 215 million children who are involved in child labor. About 115 million of this number are involved in some of the worst forms of child labor; forms of child labor which are really dangerous to children's development.

Where child labor is most prevalent, and why that is?

In terms of the geographical numbers, the largest concentration is in South Asia, but the largest incident in terms of percentages is in Africa. Clearly, it's related to poverty issues and development issues. The answer to child labor, dealing with child labor is fundamentally about promoting development.

Children living in a cocoa producing village walk back from the fields carrying wood and food stuff on their heads
Most child laborers work in agricultureImage: AP

What are the industries children are usually working for?

The largest concentration of child labor is in the agriculture sector, in small farming, family farming, but also sometimes large plantation farming as well. The majority of children are actually working in their own household environment, so in family smallholdings rather than in the sometimes expected manufacturing sector.

But this still hinders their development since they can't attend school.

Yes, absolutely, because the issues are the same. Essentially, the problem is that child labor prevents children from accessing education and benefiting from education. If children work too many hours they cannot effectively participate in education. This is a vicious cycle, because without education, these children are likely to be poorly remunerated as adults, they are likely to have low, very insecure incomes, and in turn their children are likely to become child laborers. So there is a vicious cycle of poverty and child labor leading to further poverty. And it's this cycle which we need to break.

And how can you do that?

They key is education. In promoting education for all children and ensuring that children have the opportunity of free education, an education of some quality, is the first and most important.

But it's also linked with other development issues. The need for broader efforts to tackle poverty, for social protection for poor families. If there's a crisis, the family is not forced to send a child out to work, the issue of decent work for adults, because if adult workers, if the parents have the opportunity for decent employment, they are far more likely to be able to ensure that their children have education and receive a proper childhood.

Group of children in the garbage dump to work, Baghdad, Iraq
while child labor is falling, it's not falling fast enoughImage: DW

International agreements have been signed years ago to end child labor, but has that actually helped the children?

If we look at the big picture, child labor is declining in the world. There are 215 million children estimated to be in child labor now, that's about 30 million less than eight years ago. The problem is: It's not fast enough, it's not rapid enough. And we need action to upscale the progress.

Is there something that people or consumers can do to help end child labor?

I think we've seen in recent years a growing move on the part of companies themselves to ensure that their products are child-labor-free and there are increasing numbers of corporate social responsibility issues and in part this is driven by consumers who say that they want products to be child-labor-free. That's very clear. I think consumers expressing their opinions and saying to companies what they want is important. Further than that I mean they can, of course, help in the way by supporting various development initiatives. I think it is important we sustain this movement toward a world wide movement to continue to tackle child labor and make progress.

If you take a look in the future, like ten years from now, do you think child labor will have further declined?

We certainly expect so and we hope so, but we are warning in our most recent report that the pace of declining is not rapid enough and we need to step up action. We need to accelerate the action against child labor if we're going to meet the commitments that we've established in the international community.

Interview: Sarah Steffen

Editor: Sean Sinico