Child labor in decline, but will not meet 2016 goal
The number of child workers worldwide has dropped by a third over the past 13 years, according to a report from the International Labour Organisation. But campaigners say that protecting children from hazardous work and long hours remains a major challenge, with families in poor countries such as Bangladesh heavily reliant on the income they get from sending children to work.
There are 168 million children working in situations that fit the ILO definition of child labour. That is “work undertaken by children below the appropriate legal minimum working age”, based on its minimum age convention.
Yoshie Noguchi, a child labour expert at the ILO, said the figures, though improved, did not represent success: “The main figure is that 168 million children are working too young in bad conditions, and they shouldn’t be there.” But she welcomed the drop in numbers. “This is quite an encouraging figure. It is a reduction by one third, and even compared to four years ago it is a sharp decrease,” she said.
According to the ILO, most of the progress on child labour was made between 2008 and 2012, when the number of children classed as labourers worldwide fell from 215 million to 168 million.
Noguchi said the number of children undertaking dangerous work remained unacceptable. “The worst forms of child labour includes hazardous work likely to harm the health and safety of under-18s, and even that limited category accounts for 85 million globally,” she said. “That figure is half of what it was, and represents a good reduction, but each individual child needs help.”
The report is being launched before a major conference on child labour in Brasília, Brazil’s federal capital, on 8 October. One key focus of the ILO’s work in the coming year will be the informal sector, including small-scale manufacturers to children working in a one-room house, roadside jewellers to children living with their family on a farm and working long hours during the harvest.
Noguchi said that because the family-based model of working was so common, it remained difficult to tackle child labour through a model of transparency in supply chains. “Consumers can indirectly give a signal to business that they do not want (child labour) and then the supply chains might give a signal to suppliers, but the supply chain is very long now, it’s not easy for enterprises to say no because people can sub-contract down to even a family-based level that nobody comes to inspect. Child labour exists more in that kind of setting than anywhere else.”
The ILO report documents the number and type of actions over child labour taken around the world, including monitoring mechanisms, measures taken to push for universal education, changes in the legal age for working in some countries and stricter laws brought in to tackle slavery.
Michael McGrath is country director for Save the Children in Bangladesh, where there are 7.4 million working children aged between five and 17. He said 80% of child labour in the country was in the kind of non-formal settings the ILO wanted to target.
Campaigners in Bangladesh have had some success at securing greater regulation in the garment industry. Now only children aged 15 and older are permitted to work, and for five or fewer hours a day. They are also forbidden from hazardous duties.
But subcontractors are the main employers of children, and they are not regulated in the same way.
McGrath said Save the Children was tackling the problem at a grassroots level. “We go into communities where there is a large number of informal industries and establish codes of conduct. We start with individuals then we use them as a model employer. It works through a combination of shaming and social pressure. We tell them they will get more out of the kids if they have breaks for education and leisure time,” he added.
Many child labourers in Bangladesh work in private homes, where mainly girls work long days with little access to education. Save the Children has introduced a tracking programme to help parents maintain contact with their working children.
McGrath said: “The girls are cut off, frequently never leave the home, and work 16 hour days. We conduct awareness raising in source communities so they know what risks children face. We have introduced tracking so that parents can know where their children are, we make sure they can visit at least once a year. We are working with groups of employers, apartment block by apartment block, setting up play centres where children can get together for a few hours a week. We also run neighbourhood centres where children can attend for education.”
He said similar pressure had been applied to persuade employers to allow child domestic workers to attend the local play centre. “Once they know that all the other apartment blocks have agreed to the scheme, it’s hard to resist. At first they let [the children] go to the play centre, then gradually they allow them into the education programme.”
He acknowledges that as long deep levels of poverty exist, children are likely to continue working. “At the current stage of development that Bangladesh is in, children contribute a substantial percentage of income of poor families,” McGrath said.
He said there was a mindset to overcome, where people think they are helping children by giving them work, even where conditions are poor. “Employers just don’t consider the welfare of the children. They think they are doing a good thing, the parents send the children and they get food, a warm place to stay. We say it’s not enough, they need to treat them with dignity and educate them.”