LET MY CHILDREN GO:
WORLD EFFORTS TO ELIMINATE THE WORST FORMS OF CHILD LABOR
By René Wadlow
June 12 is a red letter day on the United Nations (UN) agenda of events as the World Day against Child Labor. It marks the June arrival in 1998 of hundreds of children in Geneva, part of the Global March against Child Labor that had crossed 100 countries to present their plight to the International Labor Organization (ILO).
“We are hurting, and you can help us” was their message to the assembled International Labor Conference which meets each year in Geneva in June. One year later, in June, the ILO had drafted ILO Convention N° 182 on child labor which 165 States have now ratified — the fastest ratification rate in the ILO’s 89-year history.
The ILO is the only UN organization with a tripartite structure, governments, trade unions and employer associations are all full and equal members. All the other UN bodies are governments-only with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) playing a “fifth wheel” role. Yet NGOs within the UN system as a whole played an important role in highlighting children working in circumstances that put their physical, mental and social development at risk, children working in situations where they are exploited, mistreated and denied the basic rights of a human being. Today, millions of children, especially those living in extreme poverty, have no choice but to accept exploitive employment to ensure their own and their family’s survival. However, the ILO is the UN agency most directly related to conditions of work. Thus the ILO has often been an avenue for ‘unheard voices’ to be heard, usually through the trade union representatives; more rarely the employer representatives have played a progressive role.
Child labor and the increasing cross-frontier flow of child labor did not have a high profile on the long agenda of pressing labor issues until the end of the 1990s. At the start of the 1990s, there was only one full-time ILO staff member assigned to child labor issues; now there are 450, 90 percent in the field.
Child labor was often hidden behind the real and non-exploitive help that children bring to family farms. However, such help often keeps children out of school and thus outside the possibility of joining the modern sector of the economy. The ILO estimates that of the some 200 million child laborers in the world, some 70 percent are in agriculture, 10 percent in industry/mines and the others in trade and services — often as domestics or street vendors in urban areas. Globally, Asia accounts for the largest number of child workers — 122 million, Sub-Saharan Africa, 50 million, and Latin America and the Caribbean, 6 million. Young people under 18 make up almost half of humanity, a half which is virtually powerless in relation to the other half. To ensure the well-being of children and adolescents in light of this imbalance of power, we must identify attitudes and practices which cause invisibility.
But statistics are only one aspect of the story. It is important to look at what type of work is done and for whom. The image of the child helping his parents on the farm can hide wide-spread bonded labor in Asia. Children are ‘farmed out’ to others for repayment of a debt with interest. As the interest rates are too high, the debt is never paid off and ‘bonded labour’ is another term for a form of slavery.
In Africa, children can live at great distances from their home, working for others with no family ties and thus no restraints on the demands for work. Girls are particularly disadvantaged as they often undertake household chores following work in the fields. Schooling for such children can be non-existent or uneven at best. There is often a lack of rural schools and teachers. Rural school attendance is variable even where children are not forced to work. Thus, there is a need for better coordination between resources and initiatives for rural education and the elimination of exploitive child labor.
There is still a long way to go to eliminate exploitive child labor. Much child labor is in what is commonly called the non-formal sector of the economy where there are no trade unions. Child labor is often related to conditions of extreme poverty and to sectors of the society where both adults and children are marginalized such as many tribal societies in Asia, or the Roma in Europe or migrant workers in general.
Thus, the task of both governments and NGOs is to understand better the scope of exploitive child labor, its causes, the possibility of short-term protection of children and the longer-range efforts to overcome exclusion and poverty.
René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.