Today is June 12, the World Day Against Child Labor, launched by the ILO in 2002 to promote awareness and action to address child labor. According to the ILO, there are 218 million children aged 5-17 engaged in child labor, 58% of these in unsafe and hazardous working conditions.
The agricultural sector employs the highest percentile of child workers, accounting for 70% of child employment. Unfortunately, this work may sometimes pose serious health and safety risks for children, especially where they are using unsafe tools, operating dangerous equipment, or are exposed to harmful chemicals and pesticides.
I’ve encountered children on farms using machetes to cut sugarcane. I’ve also seen them working side by side with their parents, picking coffee berries. One obviously poses a higher risk than the other, but there are arguments to be made against both types of work. While child labor is frequently justified when it is needed to meet economic needs of the family, as President Obama noted, "Global child labor perpetuates a cycle of poverty that prevents families and nations from reaching their full potential.”
There’s a reason why child labor is restricted under International Labor Organization conventions and why C 138 on Worst Forms of Child Labor had the fastest rate of ratification of any convention in ILO history. (Today 172 countries have ratified it, 10 years after it came into force.) “Children who must work instead of going to school fail to acquire the skills and education they need for a better future. Their communities and countries suffer through losses in competitiveness, productivity and potential income.” (VOA News).
Reflecting on this issue today, I recall a visit I once made to a factory in Côte d'Ivoire. The factory was heavily impacted by the local civil conflict and was operating at 25% capacity. Most of their production was for the United Nations; they were making t-shirts for a weapons exchange package – soldiers would hand in their weapons and receive a pack of goods, including the UN t-shirt being screen printed before me. In such circumstances, children were not among the sparse population of workers. But as I watched the child sized t-shirts come down the production line, I realized where some of the children were. They were at war.
If wishing were sufficient, I would have wished those children into that factory production line in an instant. What could be worse than child soldiers?
On this day, I can say that while we have seen progress in the fight against child labor, there is still much to be done. Addressing root causes is important, “including poverty, a lack of decent work for parents, weak enforcement of labor laws, and a lack of educational opportunities for children.” (VOA News)