Rather than going to school, Ali, age 12, works in a shoe manufacturing workshop. For up to 10 hours a day, six days a week, he works in the Syrian capital of Damascus for no more than $1 per shift (Global Citizen). Ali is one of 152 million children around the world engaged in labor (International Labour Organization).
Child labor worldwide has decreased since 2012, but the pace of decline has slowed. If the 2012-2016 rate of decline continues, 121 million children will still be involved in labor by 2025. That doesn’t come close to meeting the goal of ending child labor by 2025 set by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
In 2015, more than 150 world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals initiative (UN), which included eradicating forced labor, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labor within 10 years.
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But the International Union of Food workers’ (IUF) Svetlana Boincean told WikiTribune she doesn’t think the goal will be achieved because politicians “declare, but they are not committed.”
In order for the number of child laborers to reach zero by 2025, the rate of decline would have to roughly be twice as fast as it was in the period from 2008-2016.
Causes of child labor
Seventy percent of child laborers work in agriculture. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported in June that child labor in agriculture has increased by 12 percent since 2012 (FAO), in part due to armed conflict and natural disasters.
Natural disasters often force families to send their children to work to help meet basic family needs, rather than attending school. Studies in Cambodia and Tanzania found child labor was substantially higher in villages experiencing agriculture shortages from drought, flooding and crop failure (ILO). A Global Protection Centre report found the number of adolescents taking up work after the Sahel food crisis nearly doubled in Niger.
FAO child labor expert Ariane Genthon told WikiTribune that conflicts displace large populations, force children out of school and leave families unable to meet basic needs. When this happens, she said, “children are the first buffer.”
The incidence of child labor in countries affected by armed conflict is 77 percent higher than the global average (ILO). For example, the Syrian civil war, ongoing since 2011, has had profound effects on children who have been used in the war by armed groups on all sides, according to a 2015 report from Save the Children and UNICEF. In Jordan, 47 percent of refugee households rely partly or entirely on income generated by a child (Save the Children and UNICEF).
In Afghanistan, decades of conflict have exacerbated poverty, leading to an increase in child labor (Human Rights Watch). This is despite the country’s ratification of two international treaties related to child labor (Human Rights Watch), that currently cover 80 percent of the world’s children (ILO). The U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor found Afghanistan failed to implement its labor laws by not inspecting worksites and not penalizing violators.
“Only four to five percent of the world’s agricultural workers have access to any form of labor inspection or health and safety inspection,” Boincean told WikiTribune.
Possible solutions to child labor problem
Save the Children spokesperson Bhanu Bhatnagar told WikiTribune that solving child labor involves supporting families, given the fact that two-thirds of child laborers work in family operations (FAO). He also said it will require addressing the fact that 130 million girls don’t go to school (Theirworld).
Genthon emphasized the need to raise awareness about the negative impacts of child labor, saying the practice is “sometimes mistaken for tradition.” In some places, parents worry that if children don’t work in farming from an early age, they won’t do it when they are older.
“We try to show that by educating the children, they can learn better ways to farm which will improve communities lives,” she said.
When Boincean visited Kyrgyzstan, she often heard a version of the same refrain: “When I was young my grandparents worked, my parents worked, and I worked.” However, she said the country has made progress in child labor. She said micro- credit loans to Kyrgyzstani farmers have enabled them to hire outside labor during harvest season, allowing their children to remain in school.
IUF work has included efforts to eliminate child labor in Kyrgyzstan’s tobacco industry, Uzbekistan’s cotton industry and Latin America’s banana plantations. Boincean said her work is easier when adults are part of unions, since adult underemployment, a contributor to child labor, is linked with employment rights. An ILO study in Rwanda found that child labor among farm households belonging to cooperatives is about one-third lower than in households that do not belong to a co-op.
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Boincean said most people covered by social protection schemes live in cities. “In rural areas, (it’s) a very small percentage,” she said.
Even in wealthier countries, she said, many rural villages are not covered because they are classified as agency, migrant workers or “whatever name of workers the government and employers invent, just to … find a way to exclude them from the labor laws which exist in these countries.”