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Research from Brazil highlights risks to child workers

According to a new report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), an estimated 115 million children are involved in hazardous work worldwide (over half of child labourers). The report – ‘Children in Hazardous Work’ – was issued to mark United Nations World Day against Child Labour on the 12th June.

Over 170 countries have committed themselves to tackling the problem “as a matter of urgency” by ratifying the ILO’s ‘Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention’. Such commitment has already led to ‘real success’ being made in removing younger children and girls from hazardous employment. However, for older children (15-17 years) there has been a rise of 20 per cent (between 2004-2008) in the number performing hazardous work and the ILO is calling for renewed action. The organisation wants to see all children in school until the minimum age of employment, the introduction of specific safeguards for those between the minimum work age and 18 years, and legal frameworks for action to be taken where children are engaged in hazardous work.

In Latin America, an estimated 9.5 million children are engaged in hazardous work. Brazil is one of a few countries leading the way in collecting data on these young workers. Through use of an innovative national surveillance system, Brazil has been documenting cases of illness or injury to those under 18 years of age. In a 3-year period (2007-2009), nearly 2,700 workplace injuries or illnesses among young people were documented. Brazil was one of the first countries to collect data on child labour, beginning in the early 1990s. The country’s ‘Programa de Erradicação do Trabalho Infantil’ (PETI) was established to remove children from “dangerous, unhealthy, degrading or otherwise distressing working conditions”. Nationwide, health workers have been trained to spot work-related illnesses and injuries which identify children involved in hazardous work.

Though injuries and illnesses occur in a range of sectors, hazardous work is highest in agriculture (farming, forestry and fishing). Studies show that children working in agriculture are 5 times more likely to be seriously injured than child labourers in other industries. And with developing countries rapidly adopting modern farming techniques, there is growing concern about children working with pesticides. Often, there is little training in the use of chemicals and product warning labels may not be written in the local language. Research from Brazil is helping to provide evidence of how the neurological development of young people can be affected by exposure to pesticides. Exposure can damage the nervous system causing lowered intelligence and behavioural abnormalities later in life. The ILO is therefore calling for health and safety guidelines which are specific to young people and acknowledge the dangers inherent in smaller levels of exposure to young developing bodies.

Laurinda Luffman signature