According to the International Labour Organisation, the number of child workers across the world now stands at 168 million; which signals a one-third drop since 2000. This fact carries both encouraging and worrying implications. On the one hand, this reduction is good news, as child labour is a serious child rights violation with lifelong negative consequences for children’s physical, mental and social development.
On the other hand, it is worrying because 168 million is a huge number. If all the child workers were grouped in a single country, this would be the world’s eighth most populous country, more populous than Bangladesh or Russia. Even with the progress of recent years, the world will not, at the present rate meet the target to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by 2016, which was agreed by the international community in 2010 in The Hague.
Child Labour in Numbers
According to the latest global estimates from the International Labour Organization, there are 85 million five to 17-year olds around the world doing work that directly endangers their health, safety and development. The vast majority work in agriculture but they are present in other sectors too, working in mines, being trafficked or abused in the sex trade, made to beg, exploited in domestic work, or forced to join militias.
Just under half of child workers are between five and 11 years of age and most are boys (although the figures may underestimate the involvement of girls in less visible forms of work such as domestic work).
Asia-Pacific has the most child workers (78 million) and sub-Saharan African has the highest incidence of child labour (21 million). But this is not purely a poor or developing country problem: there are also child workers in rich countries, including the US and Western Europe.
Minimum age Convention
The International Labour Standards on child labour stipulate that the general minimum age for admission to employment or work at 15 years (13 for light work) and the minimum age for hazardous work at 18 (16 under certain strict conditions). This fundamental convention provides for the possibility of initially setting the general minimum age at 14 (12 for light work) where the economy and educational facilities are insufficiently developed.
According to UNICEF, child labour reinforces intergenerational cycles of poverty and undermines national economies. It is not only a cause, but also a consequence of social inequities reinforced by discrimination. Children from indigenous groups or lower social classes are more likely to drop out of school to work.
A recent ILO study has shown that eliminating child labour in transitional and developing economies could generate economic benefits nearly seven times greater than the costs, mostly associated with investment in better schooling and social services.
On the whole, child labour is a global problem that needs a response from all sides. This means measures to help reduce poverty, improve education, enforce laws, improve employment prospects for adults and ensure there are no benefits in employing children under working age. With the global economic environment in its current state the one thing we all need are more jobs and developed economies.