Globally, the number of children in child labour has declined by a third since 2000, from 246 million to 168 million children, according to a new report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The largest numbers of child labourers are still to be found in Asia, at almost 78 million children, representing 9% of the child population. But with an estimated 59 million child labourers, Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the region with the highest incidence of child labour, at over 21% or more than one in five children between the age of 5-17 years.
The ILO defines child labour as “work undertaken by children below the appropriate legal minimum working age”. Agriculture remains by far the main sector where child labourers are used, but the problem is also considerable in other sectors such as industry, mining and domestic service.
The ILO welcomed the “encouraging” reduction in the number of child labourers, which has seen a sharp decrease over the last four years particularly. However, speaking to the Guardian, an ILO spokesperson said that despite the progress, millions of children were still “working too young”, many in hazardous conditions. The ILO estimates that at least half of child labourers (85 million) are undertaking some form of dangerous work, which puts at risk “the health and safety of under-18s”.
Major conference on child labour in Brazil
The new report is being launched ahead of a major conference on child labour in Brazil next month. Brazil is seen as a model country for the welfare programmes which have helped to reduce child labour there.
The conference will focus on children working in informal sectors such as small-scale manufacturing, though the ILO warns that youngsters often live and work alongside family members, which makes the problem difficult to tackle. The ILO also wants to focus on sectors where work is extremely hazardous for children, such as mining. According to UN estimates, small artisanal mines account for around a fifth of the world’s gold production, as well as producing gems for jewellery and rare metals for devices such as mobile phones. A sizeable percentage of artisanal workers in such mines, particularly in West Africa, are children.
Boys and girls are involved in digging, hauling and crushing stone, breathing in dust which can be laced with poisonous elements such as lead. Children also knead mercury into crushed ore with their bare hands, severely endangering their health through mercury poisoning. The response by industry or other officials to children being involved in such dangerous activities is often “there’s nothing that can be done...it’s just the way things are”. But campaigners will be hoping to show that even if that’s true of the way things are now, times are changing.