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Child labor in decline

Esther FeldenJune 12, 2014

While the number of child laborers worldwide has dropped by one-third since 2000, the ILO's Simrin Singh tells DW that the global goal to end the worst forms of this practice will not be met by 2016, especially in Asia.

Girl 13 Years and Boy in the Towel Production Child labourers Karur Tamil Nadu South India India Asia
Image: imago/imagebroker

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), an estimated 168 million children worldwide are forced to work on a regular basis under very harsh conditions in places such as coal mines, stone-pits, factories, and in the agricultural sector as cotton pickers. Millions of these children, aged between five and 17, are engaged in paid or unpaid work, in the home of third parties or employers. Their bitter fate remains mostly hidden from the public.

To raise awareness and strengthen the international campaign against this practice, the UN has been commemorating the World Day against Child Labor on June 12. Even though the global number of children forced to work has declined by one third since 2000, the core of the problem remains unsolved as poverty still drives many families to send their children off to work. Asia has the largest number of child laborers, with almost ten percent of its children being affected.

In a DW interview, ILO's Senior Specialist on Child Labor Simrin Singh talks about the developments throughout the continent and points to the measures governments and civil society must implement to tackle this widespread problem.

DW: How widespread is the practice of child labor across Asia?

Simrin Singh: The ILO's latest global statistical estimates - the 2013 Global Report on Child Labor - indicate that 78 million children are forced to work in the Asia and Pacific region. This is nearly half of all children in child labor worldwide. The Global Report did observe a significant drop from previous figures for the region where the figure stood at 114 million children in 2000.

ILO Senior Specialist on Child Labour
Singh: "Much more effort is needed to consign child labour to the history books"Image: privat

The numbers are clearly not decreasing fast enough and much more effort is needed to consign child labor to the history books. The Global Goal to end the worst forms of child labor by the year 2016 will sadly not be met given the current trends.

In which sectors are the children being employed?

The children are mostly concentrated in the agricultural sector, but the problems are not negligible in services, industry and domestic work. Children undertake a range of activities as would adults working in these sectors. However, these young people are still developing physically and mentally and the effects of working prematurely can place great stress on them as well as result in negative consequences on their health, safety, and morals.

Under which conditions do the children have to work?

Most child labor takes the form of unpaid family work and is found in the informal economy. Children work very long hours, and face a number of hazards to their health, safety and development. Many leave school prematurely either because the burden of child labor is too heavy to also keep up with school, or due to the urgency to meet the immediate basic needs of the family.

It's important to point out that child labour is a global issue, and one that is found in low-, middle- and even high-income countries. The magnitude and intensity of the problem varies among countries, given their unique socio-economic and labor market conditions and challenges. The ILO's latest Global Report found the largest number of children in child labor were actually from middle income countries - almost 94 million to be precise, indicating that poverty is not the only cause of this issue.

Which would you consider to be the most dangerous sectors?

Research indicates that the agricultural sector is associated with the highest hazards with long hours of work, poor working conditions, exposure to harmful chemical or biological agents to name a few. At the same time, work in the manufacturing, services and domestic sectors is also dangerous.

Article 3 of ILO Convention No. 182 on the elimination of the worst forms of child labor makes a clear call for ratifying member states to take priority action to end the worst forms. Those in the worst forms include children engaged in hazardous work; those involved in illicit activities; those trafficked and working in slavery like conditions including in armed conflict, and the use or offering of a child for pornography or prostitution.

What would be the most effective measures to combat child labor?

The issue is complex and requires a multifaceted approach adapted to the specific socio-economic, cultural, political and labour market conditions.

Some key strategies to prevent child labor involve setting up and enforcing legal protections for young workers; creating a system that offers quality and accessible education until such a time that children have attained the legal age to work, extending social protection to the vulnerable to help them counteract poverty and shocks, and implementing sound labor market policies that enable children to transition effectively from school to decent work once these young people have reached the legal age to do so.

We also need to raise awareness of the negative consequences of this practice; enacting and applying the necessary legal provisions to effectively ban it are important steps. National governments certainly have a primary responsibility and a key role to play with respect to enacting laws and their enforcement, supportive policies, and programs. However, it is not possible for them to deal with the complexities of child labor alone.

Children are working at a brickyard.
The fight against child labour must be made a collective responsibility for it to succeed, says SinghImage: imago/Eastnews

The fight against child labor must be internalised as a collective responsibility for it to succeed. It is crucial that government efforts are complimented through partnerships with multilateral organizations, employers' organizations, workers' organizations, the media, academia, students, and indeed civil society organizations.

Simrin Singh is a senior specialist on child labor at the International Labor Organization's Asia and Pacific regional office.

The interview was conducted by Esther Felden.