The International Labor Organization reports 152 million children are victims of child labor, with nearly half forced to work in hazardous, unhealthy conditions that can result in death and injury.
Twenty years ago, hundreds of people, including children, participated in the Global March against Child Labor. They came to the International Labor Conference in Geneva demanding a Convention on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor.
Basu Rai from Nepal was the youngest of the marchers. Now, a grown man he recalls clambering on table tops chanting slogans.
“Go, Go Global March. Stop, Stop Child Labor. We want education. No more tools in tiny hands. We want books and we want toys,” he said.
Rai was orphaned at age four. Homeless and without anyone to look after him, he became a street gangster, a rag picker, a delivery boy. He did anything to survive. Now, as an adult, he has become a Child Rights Activist.
“But, still I am afraid because I am a father to a two-month old daughter and then because the world is not safe for the children. So, this is our collective responsibility to work together for the sake of the childhood…But, still there are 152 million children who are languishing in a kind of slavery,” said Rai.
Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children’s rights activist and Nobel peace prize laureate, led the 1998 Global March of enslaved and trafficked children. He said progress has been made since then, but much remains to be done.
“If the children are still trapped into the supply chain, if the children are still enslaved, if the children are still sold and bought like animals and sometimes for less than the price of animals to work in fields and farms, and shops and factories, or for household work as domestic help, this is a blot on humanity,” said Satyarthi.
The ILO reports nearly half of the child laborers are found in Africa and in the Asia and Pacific regions. Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest proportion with one in five children working.
It notes children typically enter the work force at the age of six or seven, getting involved in hazardous work as they get older. About 70 percent of hazardous work is concentrated in agriculture. Other forms include mining, construction, and domestic service.
ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, said the world is facing an epidemic of occupational accidents and disease.
“Honestly, the annual toll is appalling — 2.78 million work-related deaths, 374 million injuries and illnesses. If these were the victims of a war, we would be talking a lot about it. Children and young workers are at greater risk and suffer disproportionately and with longer lasting consequences,” he said.
Ryder says legislation, labor inspection, and workplace labor relations and practices must be strengthened to stop this carnage.
Most child laborers are in the developing world. But, this shameful practice also occurs in some of the world’s richest countries. Zulema Lopez, a Child Rights Activist and Labor Relations student in the United States recalls her life as a child.
“At the age of seven, it was normal for me to wake up at five o’clock in the morning, put on my shoes, put on a T-shirt and go work in the hot sun, burning — my back was aching, 20-30 pounds of buckets of cucumbers next to me, trying to make ends meet,” said Lopez.
Lopez said people do not realize what is happening in their own backyard. She calls the exploitative work that robs children of their childhood unacceptable and said it must stop. She said children are the future and if people fail to protect the world’s children, then there is little hope for the future.