Child Labour: The Hidden Cost

In the dusty wastelands of Carabayllo Peru, Piero is combing through the towns landfill sites. Sifting through rubble, broken bottles, glass-shards, scrap-metal and household trash in order to earn a wage. Yet Piero is just 11 years old — just one of 168 million children currently trapped in child-labour

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In truth child-labour isn’t just about waste-picking, yet Piero’s life is an example of one of the worst kinds. ‘Hazardous work’ as it is called by the International Labour Organisation, and 85 million children are doing it. For Piero it could be something innocuous: The accidental contact of a needle, cutting himself on glass shards, or being poisoned from industrial solvents, and death becomes real. Other children could be at risk of suffocation in collapsed mines or quarries. Some could drown in rough seas, while working with fisherman. Many sustain life changing injuries in building sites. Some are maimed using farmyard machinery. The worse form of Child-Labour is slavery. Codified in the ILO Convention 182, slavery includes trafficking, debt-bondage, serfdom, conscription, prostitution, pornography, drug-smuggling, and criminal enterprise. The key aspect is that in this form of ‘child-labour’ there is no choice.

Needless to say sending children to work for whatever reason is not just hazardous, it is also extremely detrimental to their development. It is true some can earn a substantial salary, profit proportionate to the risk; but a child denied the opportunity of going to school and seeing friends, is trapped in a cycle of neglect. Such jobs reinforces poverty by perpetuating livelihoods that lack the promise of a better future. Whether the causes are hazardous environments, long-working hours, informal contracts or illegal terms and conditions, child-labour destroys a boy or girls chances of becoming a healthy adult, with a fulfilling life ahead of them.

The problem of children in work, is worldwide, but it tends to prophegate in developing countries key: Out of the 168 million child labourers, 77.7 million are in the Asia-Pacific region. 59 million in subsaharan Africa. In latin america there are 12.5 million, and in the middle east 9.2 million. While girls are more vulnerable compared to boys in working life, 60% of child labourers are boys. And they too will face dangers and threats that girls may avoid due to their gender.

In terms of industry agriculture is still the main employer and accounts for 73 million. However, 54 million (32%) work in the hospitality sector. Finally manufacturing industries employ 12 million (7.2%).

The main cause of child-labour is poverty. It is often the poor and disenfranchised communities whose children end up working. Many labourers, will be migrants, refugees or from lower-caste ethnicities. Others will simply be in areas of extreme deprivation with little opportunity. Piero who works in the rubbish tips bordering the slums in Peru is a case in point. Children may have no other choice but to earn a livelihood not just for themselves but for their family.

And yet, ignorance about the dangers of child-labour, human rights, and long-term health implications, are also a reason it continues to exist. Children do not have access to, legal contracts, and neither do their families, or indeed their communities. For employers this means cheap labour, which is more often than not illegal. On the opposite side, localised economies rely on such a market.

Almost every country in the world has laws against child labour. Indeed in 1989 the United Nations adopted the ‘Convention on the Rights of a Child’, and it was ratified by 193 countries. $70 million is invested each year to end the problem, and progress is being made.

Is poverty a cause or effect of child-labour? One school argues, that policy and legislation can never be truly implemented because children work for necessity; labouring is a means of survival for individuals, families and communities. If poverty exists, there will always be a market economy however unsavoury it may be, it is better than being destitute. The other school argues, that child-labour perpetuates poverty, by continually offering low-pay unskilled vocations that offer no scope for development either to individuals or regions.

None of economic studies of course matters to Piero out working on the Peruvian ziggurats of waste. His family depends on him earning and he is proud of being a breadwinner; after all bread is often a luxury one can scarce afford.

Nevertheless, we have cut child-labour prevalence by 1/3 in only 14 years, and so we can be more hopeful for the future. A vigilant and committed approach to child-protection laws, investment in sustainable industries, better access to education, and finally a willingness to engage with the problem will see us through. In fact if it comes to work, working to end child-labour is perhaps the most important job we can do in a lifetime. The reward for such an endeavour? Children are given their childhoods back and have a chance to live a life of their choosing.

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Freelance journalist writing on mental health and disability. Words have the power to shine a light on realities otherwise missed.

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