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Social Issues
World Day Against Child Labour: A Look At The Extent Of The Problem
June 12, 2014
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Indian children working near their parents at a construction site in New Delhi (Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In 2002, the International Labour Organization designated June 12 as the World Day Against Child Labour, and each year since, the UN agency has used the day as an opportunity to focus attention on the reach of child labour and concentrate efforts to eliminate it. This year's theme centres on the need to extend national social security systems to reduce the poverty that often leads to child labour.

"Family poverty and income shocks are often catalysts of child labour," ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said in a statement. "It is time to break this cycle and ensure that families living in poverty have adequate incomes, income security and health care. These social protection measures can help households weather shocks and keep their children in school and out of child labour."

But what exactly is child labour? And how big of a problem is it? Below, some facts and figures to give context to the day.

5. The Definition of 'Child Labour' Can Be Complex

According to the ILO, child labour "is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development." There is no single age cut-off to define what counts as a child, however; the ILO's Minimum Age Convention asks each member country to specify a minimum age of work, with the goal progressively raising that minimum (the lower limit, for countries with underdeveloped economies and educational systems, is 14). But even if the exact cut-off age varies, there are certain standards that are often used to designate work performed by children as "child labour": it should not affect their health, development or schooling; it should not be mentally, physically or morally dangerous; and it shouldn't separate them unduly from their families.

4. Not All Child Work Is Necessarily Bad

The ILO and others point out that some forms of child work are generally considered positive, such as helping parents around the home or assisting in a family business. "Work can provide children the opportunity to develop skills, self-confidence, and to participate in their community," Save the Children Canada President and CEO Patricia ERB writes in a statement arguing against blanket bans on child work. "We have learned that there are very few black and white situations: most of the time, work situations combine both harmful and positive aspects in children’s lives." 

3. Child Labour Is Declining

Last September, the ILO released its quadrennial child labour estimate, and the news, overall, was good: between 2000 and 2012, the number of child labourers declined by a third, from about 246 to 168 million. Still, that number meant that the organization's goal of eliminating the worst forms by 2016 would not be met (those worst forms include prostitution, trafficking, pornography, the drug trade and practices approaching slavery). Of particular note, more than half of the world's child labourers are involved in hazardous work: a full 85 million, down from 115 million in 2000. The number of girls in child labour dropped 40 per cent, compared with 25 per cent for boys.

2. Child Labour Is Unequally Distributed

Unsurprisingly, the incidence of child labour is highest in those countries with the lowest national income — still, by absolute numbers, middle-income countries have the most child labourers, meaning the problem is not limited to the poorest nations. In terms of the type of work being performed, agriculture accounts for 59 per cent of all those in child labour, followed by the services sector and industry. Boys outnumber girls in all sectors, but girls are more frequently called on to perform domestic work, which is often difficult to count. And, as the ILO points out, domestic work is "outside the reach of workplace inspections, leaving these children particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse."

1. Real Progress Is Possible

The drop in child labour figures over the last decade and a half is a testament to the fact that progress on the issue is possible. What's been driving that decline? According to the ILO, part of it is due to political commitments by governments around the world, which have adopted plans to reduce the practice. Indeed, according to the organization, these policy changes are more important than even economic growth in reducing the numbers:  "never has this been more apparent than in the most recent (2008-2012) period,... which saw continued progress against child labour despite the global economic crisis and its aftermath." In particular, two major policy areas are credited with the decline: the worldwide increase in school attendance, and improved access to social security.

For a look at how child labour is connected with the products we use every day in Canada, see this feature by the QMI Agency's Thane Burnett, which traces the supply chain of the chrome industry — beginning with 13-year-old chromite scavengers in Albania.

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