Fifteen years after the first World Day against Child Labour the UN estimates that 168 million children remain trapped in work.
Many of these children work instead of going to school – they lose their childhood, have no time for play and are in jobs that are hazardous. They are sometimes involved in illegal activities such as prostitution and drug trafficking, others work as child soldiers or are held in child slavery.
A lot has been done to tackle child labour but there is still a long way to go. So what is being done by international bodies right now to address the issue? What is the role of aid agencies and the private sector and how can this wider community help the UN and International Labour Organisation to end child labour?
What is World Day against Child Labour?
Launched in 2002 by the UN (through the International Labour Organisation) and marked every year on 12 June, World Day against Child Labour focuses attention on the global extent of child labour and the action and efforts needed to eliminate it. Each year, the World Day brings together governments, employers and workers organisations, civil society, as well as millions of people to highlight the plight of child labourers and focus on key areas to improve. In 2017 the theme is the impact of conflicts and disasters on child Labour.
Events held on 12th June this year included policy debates, awareness-raising campaigns, cultural performances and other public activities.
What are the issues?
ILO Director General Guy Ryder estimates in a statement to mark the World Day that over 1.5 billion people live in regions or countries around the world affected by conflict and violence. UN figures show that 200 million people are affected by disasters each year around the world; a third of them children.
Living a normal childhood in these areas can be impossible. As schools are destroyed and basic services are disrupted, or as families are pushed out and become refugees, the risk of children being forced into work increases. The Child Protection Working Group has produced a video which shows how disasters can worsen child labour and force many families to send their children to work.
The situation is even more acute in conflict zones, where tens of thousands of children find themselves forcibly recruited for use in armed conflict – child soldiers are still being used in 17 countries around the world. Many take up arms directly, with others working in supportive roles or even as sex slaves. Most are forcefully recruited or enrol as a survival measure, relying on the protection of armed groups to stay alive in exchange for their labour or their bodies.
What are the UN and the ILO doing?
The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child seeks to protect children from economic exploitation (article 32) and the Sustainable Development Goals – adopted by world leaders in 2015 – calls on everyone to take action to end child labour, end modern slavery and end human trafficking that so often leads to forced labour, especially in conflict zones. The UN’s aim is to eradicate all forms of child labour by 2030.
The International Labour Organisation takes action to speed up the abolition of child labour and work has stepped up over the last four years. The ILO works to get national governments to pass laws against child labour and to regulate and enforce minimum working ages. They partner with local groups and employers to strengthen health and safety at work and to stop employers taking on children. For example in Jordan, the ILO and the International Youth Foundation have worked together to help young workers at risk of exploitation through upgrading informal apprenticeships.
What can aid agencies do in the fight against child labour?
“Staff should be trained to spot the signs of child labour and distinguish them from the normal routines of children in rural communities.”
The number of children working, who shouldn’t be, fell by a third between 2000 and 2012 and has continued to fall. This shows that progress is possible and many agencies are already looking at ways they can help through changing their procedures and making their staff more aware.
So what more can aid agencies do to make sure they aren’t inadvertently contributing to child labour and can address it when they find it?
- Be child labour sensitive – It’s important that agency staff are trained to watch out for child labour and know how to respond. This is especially important for those agencies working in food security and nutrition. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that 60% of child labour worldwide is in agriculture. Staff should be trained to spot the signs of child labour which can often be invisible and distinguish it from the normal routines of children in rural communities. And they should have clear procedures on how to report their concerns and who to report to
- Employ local people – when aid agencies operate in fragile and conflict prone environments, employing local people is one of the biggest contributions to stability that aid agencies can make. Taking on a local workforce helps agencies embed themselves in the community they are trying to serve, strengthening that community economically and reducing incentives for families to send children out to work
- Assess aid programmes for their impact on child labour – agencies can put checks in place to ensure their programmes don’t inadvertently make the problem of child labour worse. One cited example is cash-for-work projects, which can have the unintended consequence of taking adults away from their usual farm work for paid work. This farm work then needs to be taken up and is given to children to do
Undoubtedly there is more that those working in humanitarian fields can do in the fight against child labour. Where else can we make a difference through small steps that have big impact?