Sparing Children From Dangerous Work

UNICEF Report Details Abuses

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LONDON, FEB. 26, 2005 ( A stunning 180 million children are in particular danger due to their hazardous working conditions, says a report published by the British committee of UNICEF. Published on Feb. 18, the study, «End Child Exploitation: Child Labor Today,» affirms that worldwide one in 12 young people under 18 years of age is involved in dangerous work: slavery, forced labor, sexual exploitation or participation in the military. Of these, 97% are located in developing countries.

UNICEF proposes improving the economic conditions of these countries as the solution. In the press release accompanying the report, UNICEF’s executive director in the United Kingdom, David Bull, explained: «One way to put an end to the exploitation of children highlighted in this report is by taking action to make poverty history and ensuring a commitment to more and better international aid.»

The report estimates that there are more than 350 million children, ages 5 to 17, at work. Of those old enough to work, under international standards, about 60 million are in danger of harm because they are involved in the «worst forms» of child labor. UNICEF further calculates that out of approximately 211 million working children under age 15, a bit more than half are involved in the «worst forms» of work. Combining the totals from the subgroups gives the 180 million figure.

The problem is particularly notable in Africa. There, 41% of the 5- to 14-year-olds are known to work, compared with 21% in Asia and 17% in Latin America and the Caribbean. Yet, due to its higher population, Asia has the largest total number of working children, 60% of the world’s total.

While the vast majority of problems occur in developing nations, the report noted that children are also at risk in Western countries, albeit in small numbers. In the United States, the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants are sometimes put to work on farms. The legal age for most farmworkers is only 12, if they are accompanied by their parents.

In some European countries, minority groups such as Romany (or Gypsies) and recently arrived immigrants send their children to work while still below the minimum legal age for employment. The UNICEF report observed that in European Union countries children are now being brought in from Eastern Europe and Africa with a view to their economic and sexual exploitation.

The report also criticized the situation in Britain, where a plethora of laws and norms on child employment leads to a confusing legal situation. As well, the government has shown insufficient interest in enforcing the laws protecting children.

Worst forms

Child exploitation has received increasing attention at the international level. In 1999, a new international convention was adopted at the annual International Labor Conference, the «Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention» (also known as ILO Convention 182).

The convention came into force the following year and, by last June, 150 countries had ratified it. For its part, UNICEF has combated the problem by giving special priority to education, to ensure that children go to school instead of starting work too young.

Defining exactly what constitutes child labor is not easy, as national legislation on the subject varies widely. For that reason the 1999 ILO convention is titled «The Worst Forms of Child Labor,» as it seeks to rule out categories of work that are inherently dangerous for children. The convention outlined a number of criteria to identify problem areas, namely:

— Physical, psychological or sexual abuse.

— Work underground, under water, at dangerous heights or in confined spaces.

— Work with dangerous machinery, equipment and tools, or which involves the manual handling or transport of heavy loads.

— Work in an unhealthy environment which would expose children to hazardous substances, agents or processes, or to temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations which might damage their health.

Since the adoption of this convention, the term «child labor» no longer refers exclusively to children working before they are 14 or 15. It now includes all cases in which children are exposed to harm at work, including that which deprives them of other basic rights, such as their right to education, or which exposes them to physical or sexual abuse.

Moreover, the norms in the convention do not contain a blanket prohibition against children working or earning money. It is reasonable for children to help out in the home and to contribute to a family business, the study notes, but only so long as this does not hurt their education or expose them to harm.

Underlying problems

The report also noted that the experience since the introduction of the ILO convention demonstrates that it is not enough merely to try to ban the practices that exploit children.

The poverty afflicting the children’s families needs to be addressed so as to enable them to avoid work and to go to school. This poverty can result from the low wages their parents earn, or because the family no longer has the male breadwinner, due to divorce. Wars, and conflicts such as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, create large numbers of orphans, who are obliged to enter the workforce.

In some areas HIV/AIDS is also a cause of difficulties, with households now headed only by children, who have to go out to work. Other problems occur among indigenous communities that suffer discrimination and are reduced to poverty. The report also called for an end to discrimination against girls, who are sometimes obliged to work while the boys continue their education.

Finding a solution to these problems is not easy, the report admits, and a variety of initiatives are needed. In the short term, families could be helped to meet the costs of education their children through the provision of grants. In the longer term, economic reforms at the national and international levels are needed to tackle the problem of poverty. The report also called upon governments to establish (and enforce) laws and policies that will protect children.

The UNICEF report also focused on why resolving the underlying problem of poverty is vital. In the mid-1990s in Bangladesh, for example, thousands of teen-age girls were summarily dismissed when employers thought the United States was about to impose a boycott on garments manufactured with the help of children.

Another case, in 1996, involved a factory in Morocco that employed young girls. After a television documentary generated protests, the girls were dismissed, the result being that they were worse off.

To address the underlying problem of poverty, UNICEF called on governments to keep their long-standing promise of giving 0.7% of national income in aid to developing countries. The report also noted that aid must be used more effectively, such as being spent on basic health care and education — areas critical for poor people.

As well, aid needs to be structured so that it supports the plans made by poor countries in their strategy to overcome poverty. It also needs to be more predictable, so that governments can plan effectively.

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