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Child Labor on the Wane

Data Point to an Encouraging Trend

GENEVA, JUNE 17, 2006 ( On Monday the International Labor Organization marked the annual World Day against Child Labor. The ILO organized a series of events in Geneva, held within the context of the annual meeting of the organization.

“Many have said child labor will always be with us,” said Juan Somavia, director-general of the ILO, in a press release dated June 7. “But the global movement against child labor is proving them wrong.”

“The End of Child Labor: Within Reach” is the title of an ILO report published to coincide with this year’s world day. It starts by observing how four years ago, the ILO developed a set of statistics to allow a reliable assessment of the extent of the problem. Using this methodology, the statistics in the report show that the number of child workers fell by 11% at the global level over the last four years.

Even more encouraging was the fact that the decrease is occurring most sharply in the area of hazardous work by children. The number of children in hazardous work decreased overall by 26%, and by 33% in the 5-14 age group.

In geographic terms, Latin America and the Caribbean made the greatest progress. In this region the number of children at work fell by two-thirds over the last four years, and now just 5% of children are engaged in work. The least progress has been made in sub-Saharan Africa, where the level of child labor remains high.

Millions still at work

In spite of this progress, however, large numbers of children still remain at work. In 2004 — the latest figures available for use in this year’s report — there were 218 million children trapped in child labor. Of these, 126 million were in hazardous work.

The ILO does not seek an absolute prohibition against any form of work by children. In fact, the 2004 data estimate there are about 317 million economically active children aged 5 to 17, of whom 218 million could be regarded as child laborers.

Divided by age groups, in the range of 5- to 14-year-olds, there are 166 million child laborers, and 74 million children in hazardous work. Boys continue to be more afflicted than girls by child labor, particularly in hazardous work. The difference becomes more pronounced with increasing age.

Child labor that is proscribed under international law falls into three categories:

— The worst forms, defined as slavery, trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of forced labor. This includes forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict, prostitution and pornography, and other illicit activities.

— Labor performed by a child who is under the minimum age specified for that kind of work, and that is thus likely to impede the child’s education and full development.

— Labor that jeopardizes the physical, mental or moral well-being of a child, either because of its nature or because of the conditions in which it is carried out. This is known as “hazardous work.”

Why the decline

The progress obtained is the result of many years of work on the issue, according to the ILO. In 1992 the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor was launched. Today, the program receives funding from some 30 nations and is active in 86 countries. It is, in fact, the ILO’s biggest technical cooperation program.

Another element in the reduction of child labor was the formulation of a number of conventions on the issue. The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work was adopted in 1998. The text included the elimination of child labor as one of the four fundamental principles which ILO members undertook to respect.

This was followed by the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, in 1999. This document, referred to as Convention No. 182, has been ratified by 158 countries. Another document, the Minimum Age Convention, dating back to 1973 and known as Convention No. 138, has been ratified by an additional 77 nations since 1999.

Additionally, the ILO stated that the work of parliamentarians, nongovernmental organizations, consumers and public opinion in general were also important in making progress on reducing the number of children in the work force.

Reducing the practice of child labor, the report observes, is not something that happens in isolation from the rest of society. Economic growth is important, and progress has been slower where economic progress has lagged.

As well, countries need to approach this problem with a set of policies related to equality, human rights, decent work for all adults, and education for all children. The ILO also noted that both employers’ and workers’ organizations play a decisive role in the fight against child labor.

Another key factor, in the realm of education, is the level of school attendance. Compulsory education imposes limits on the hours of work and the nature and conditions of work, the report states. In many countries the establishment of universal schooling up to the age of 14 has signaled the effective demise of child labor, the ILO noted. Citing the examples of Brazil and China, the report said that progress in reducing child labor is the greatest when economic progress is combined with education reform.

The type of economic production also influences the degree of child labor. The higher the share of agriculture in gross national product, the higher the incidence of child labor.

Church’s message

The Catholic Church has long opposed abuses committed through child labor. In fact, the first social encyclical, “Rerum Novarum,” issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, condemned the practice. In a quote cited by the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (No. 296), Leo XIII stated that children should not be put to work before their minds and bodies are sufficiently developed.

Over a century later, in the World Day of Peace Message for 1996, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Child labor, in its intolerable forms, constitutes a kind of violence that is less obvious than others, but it is not for this reason any less terrible.”

The Compendium notes that in some situations the economic contribution made by children at work can be indispensable for families and countries. Nevertheless, the Church condemns the exploitation of children in situations that are a form of veritable slavery.

Children are the future of a nation and, as such, they should be provided with nutrition, education, health and child rights, stated Father Jose Vattakkuzhy, executive secretary of the Indian bishops’ Commission for Labor, in a declaration issued Monday for the ILO’s world day.

In the statement, published by the Indian Catholic News Service, Father Vattakkuzhy observed that India takes first place in the world for the use of children in the work force. Poverty is one of the causes, but broken families and “vices of the head of the families,” also play a part. When families are afflicted with problems of alcohol or drug addiction, sending the children out to work is often seen as the solution to the need for money, he explained.

“We can give these children a better life,” he concluded. Little by little, the world seems to be concurring with that.

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