Child labour is one of the most devastating consequences of persistent poverty but 81 percent of British Columbians think it’s easy to turn a blind eye to child labour in developing countries.
Children should not have to work but according to the World Bank, an estimated 250 million children are working worldwide. Of these, 61 percent are in Asian, 32 percent in Africa and 7 percent in Latin America. Relatively few children work in developed countries. Child labour is a complex subject, and while often harmful, it isn’t always so, especially in countries and situations where the alternative is deeper poverty for children and their families. In a poll commissioned by World Vision a few weeks after the Bangladesh factory disaster, a survey found that 81 per cent of British Columbians think it’s easy to turn a blind eye to child labour in developing countries. A majority also misjudged the scale of child slavery worldwide. On average, British Columbians estimated that 7.9 million children are doing hazardous work. The correct answer, according to the International Labour Organization, is more than 115 million children are doing work that is damaging their bodies, minds and well-being. Many have dropped out of school; many are not able to escape their situation.
“British Columbians haven’t yet grasped the shocking scale of child labour worldwide. Their estimate of how many children toil in dirty, dangerous and degrading jobs was 14 times lower than reality,” said Cheryl Hotchkiss, senior advocacy manager, World Vision Canada.
“It’s easy to turn a blind eye to something that’s not in your face, but this research shows British Columbians want options to protect children in other countries from exploitation, just like children in Canada should be protected.”
In its most harmful form, child labour impairs the physical and mental development of children. Most child workers are found in Asia, but the proportion of children working is highest in Africa, where on average, one child in three is engaged in some form of economic activity, mostly agriculture. An estimated 60% of child labour occurs in agriculture, fishing, hunting and forestry. Child labourers have been found harvesting bananas in Ecuador, cotton in Egypt, oranges in Brazil, cocoa in the Ivory Coast, tea in Bangladesh, and fruits and vegetables in the US. About 14 million children are estimated to be directly involved in manufacturing goods, including carpets in India, Pakistan and Egypt, clothing sewn in Bangladesh, footwear made in India and the Philippines, soccer balls sewn in Pakistan, fireworks made in China and Peru, and surgical instruments made in Pakistan. Children as young as 6 years old break up rocks, wash, sieve and carry ore. Nine year olds work underground setting explosives and carrying loads while mining for gold in Colombia, diamonds in Cote d’Ivoire, coal in Mongolia, or charcoal in Brazil.
In Ecuador, 70 percent of child workers work more than 20 hours. In rural Bangladesh, by the age of 13, non-school going children already work hours as long as or even longer than most adults. In Thailand, working boys and girls aged 11 to 15 years have average weekly hours of work of 50 hours, but for girls in services the average exceeds 65 hours. Many children work under exploitative conditions that have harmful effects on their physical condition and mental health. The working conditions of child garbage pickers in the Philippines clearly increase the risk of diseases and disability through exposure to lead and mercury, heavy lifting, and the presence of parasites. Children in agriculture are more likely to be adversely affected than adults by climatic exposure, heavy work, toxic chemicals, and accidents from sharpened tools and motorized equipment.
Domestic service is primarily undertaken by girls and is one of the occupations that can cause serious psychological and social adjustment problems. Child workers typically live away from home and may routinely work long hours, often in almost total isolation from family and friends. In Colombia, domestic servants comprise the majority of all child workers laboring over 60 hours per week.
The World Health Organization reports that psychological stress, premature aging, depression, and low self-esteem are common symptoms among young household helpers.
At the extreme, traditional forms of child slavery such as bonded labor exist in South Asia and in East Africa. Instances of slavery have also been reported in Latin American/Caribbean countries. Slave labor is more common in agriculture, domestic help, the sex industry, carpet and textile industries, and quarrying and brick making.
Perhaps the most disturbing form of child labour is through the commercial sexual exploitation of children. In some areas the sexual exploitation of children is clearly related to foreign child sex tourism, in others it is associated with the local demand. In most countries, girls represent 80 to 90% of the victims, although in some regions boys predominate. Research indicates that 30 to 35 percent of all prostitutes in the Mekong sub-region of Southeast Asia are between 12 and 17 years of age. Thailand’s Health System Research Institute reports that children in prostitution make up 40% of prostitutes in Thailand. In Sri Lanka, children often become the prey of sexual exploiters through friends and relatives; the prevalence of boys in prostitution here is strongly related to foreign tourism.
The International Labour Organisation suggests poverty is the greatest cause behind child labour. For impoverished households, income from a child’s work is usually crucial for his or her own survival or for that of the household. Income from working children, even if small, may be between 25 to 40% of the household income. Lack of meaningful alternatives, such as affordable schools and quality education is another major factor driving children to harmful labour. Children work because they have nothing better to do. Many communities, particularly rural areas where between 60-70% of child labour is prevalent, do not possess adequate school facilities. Even when schools are sometimes available, they are too far away, difficult to reach, unaffordable or the quality of education is so poor that parents wonder if going to school is really worth it.
In European history when child labour was common certain cultural beliefs rationalised child labour and encouraged it. Some viewed that work is good for character-building and skill development of children. In many cultures, particular where informal economy and small household businesses thrive, the cultural tradition is that children follow in their parents’ footsteps; child labour then is a means to learn and practice that trade from a very early age. Similarly, in many cultures the education of girls is less valued or girls are simply not expected to need formal schooling, and these girls pushed into child labour such as providing domestic services.
Child labour is not only the result of culture or work ethics, but also of companies and subcontractors searching for a cheap and obedient labour force. Any situation that results in or perpetuates poverty also encourages child labour.
The World Bank’s International Monetary Fund subjects deep-in-debt countries to a Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), which forces governments to increase exports, privatize schools and health care, and deregulate the industry. By attracting foreign manufacturers to come in and set-up local businesses, these countries must restructure their whole export economy. They promise these manufacturers cheap non-unionized labour, as well as lax work regulations. In effect, the World Bank’s requirements have particularly devastating repercussions on the children of poor families. Numerous industry sectors hire subcontractors for a large part of their production needs. Consequently, large companies save significantly on labour and other general expenses. The local companies must deal with fierce competition when it comes to securing contracts, so they look for the cheapest possible labour force: children. Some of the very large and profitable companies in the world refuse to take responsibility for the subcontractors’ business practices.
Poverty, performance leveling, technology, an expanding informal economy, and the International Monetary Fund’s re-engineering requirements are the “new world economy” factors that have contributed to the increase in child labour.
Concerns have often been raised over the buying public’s moral complicity in purchasing products assembled or otherwise manufactured in developing countries with child labour. However, others have raised concerns that boycotting products manufactured through child labour may force these children to turn to more dangerous or strenuous professions, such as prostitution or agriculture. For example, a UNICEF study found that after the Child Labour Deterrence Act was introduced in the US, an estimated 50,000 children were dismissed from their garment industry jobs in Bangladesh, leaving many to resort to jobs such as “stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution”, jobs that are more hazardous and exploitative than garment production.
Solutions to end child labour are needed beyond conventional thinking. Vital to achieving progress against harmful child labour are effective efforts to reduce poverty and economic and social policies and programs aimed at poverty reduction. The elimination of child labour and the provision of full time formal education are inextricably linked. The focus of attention must be to actively integrate and retain all ‘out of school’ children into formal education systems. Children have the right to education at least until the age they are allowed to work which is 15. In addition efforts must be made to remove all barriers to local schools as well as ensuring the necessary financial and infrastructural support for the provision of quality education.
All governments need to ensure that they do not permit, or allow child labour to exist within their state. Furthermore they have a duty to ensure that state agencies, corporate bodies as well as their suppliers and trading partners worldwide, are fully compliant with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international agreements protecting the rights of children. As part of their corporate social responsibility, all transnational and other business enterprises using child labour should create and implement a plan to remove children from their workforce, including their supply-chain, and enrol them in full time education.
Brands that use child and slave labour
Philip Morris – Philip Morris has actually admitted that 72 children work on the tobacco farms from which Philip Morris buys its plants. The youngest of these 72 is just 10 years old. Philip Morris makes Basic, Marlboro, Cambridge, Benson & Hedges, Commander, Chesterfield, English Ovals, Dave’s, L&M, Lark, Parliament, Merit, Saratoga, Players and Virginia Slims.
Victoria’s Secret – Victoria’s Secret uses ‘fair trade cotton’ grown in Burkina Faso. The country readily admits to using child workers, and Victoria’s Secret readily admits to purchasing cotton from them.
Toys ‘R’ Us – Urban Outfitters, Forever 21 and Aeropostale – Each of these say they have stringent contracts in place to ensure that the cotton they receive uses “legally qualified workers”. But they buy their cotton from Uzbekistan, where the government removes children from school and sends them to work. So yeah, they are “legally qualified”, but not by any humane standards.
Hershey’s – Hershey’s line of chocolates, Bliss Chocolates, will only be made using cocoa certified by the Rainforest Alliance. The only reason for this ‘ethical’ move was to prevent the International Labor Rights Forum from airing an ad featuring Hershey’s use of child labor on a giant screen right outside of the Super Bowl. . Despite signing a protocol against child labor almost ten years ago, Hershey is the one participating company who has failed to eliminate their use of child labor. In West Africa, thousands of children still harvest cocoa for Hershey’s.
Apple – Apple found 91 children worked at its suppliers in 2010 – a nine-fold increase from the previous year. The company also acknowledged that 137 workers had been poisoned by the chemical, n-hexane, at a supplier’s manufacturing facility and that less than a third of the facilities it audited were complying with Apple’s code on working hours.
Walmart Canada – Walmart Canada’s in-house clothing brand Simply Basic and other products have been manufactured using child labor in Bangladesh, according to an investigation conducted by Radio-Canada in 2005.
H&M – H&M, one of North America’s most popular fashion chains, is under pressure to sever its links with clothing suppliers that buy cotton from Uzbekistan, where large quantities are harvested using child labor. H&M uses football star David Beckham and singer Lana Del Rey to promote its brand.
Puma – According to a new National Labor Committee report, an estimated 200 children, some 11 years old or even younger, are sewing clothing for Puma at the Harvest Rich factory in Bangladesh.
Samsung – Samsung Electronics has been accused by a labor rights group of mistreating workers in China and illegally using child labor. The New York based-China Labor Watch said its investigation into workplace conditions at eight factories in China showed some employees were working more than 100 hours per month of overtime and that children were knowingly employed.