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Urgent need to address all forms of child labour remains

ILO figures on global decline child labour probably underestimate problem

Stop Child Labour, 25 September 2013

The International Labour Organization (ILO) published this week the report Marking progress against child labour. The ILO estimates the number of working children to be 168 million in 2012 versus 245 million in 2000 and 215 million in 2008. Half of the 168 million children do hazardous work, less than half of what it was in 2000. Most of the children work in agriculture and in the services sector and nearly half of all child labourers are under 12.(1)
The campaign Stop Child Labour welcomes this apparent decline in child labour, especially in Asia. But the report itself and our own experiences do prompt us to be careful with the conclusions, also on the numbers mentioned. And of course, 168 million child labourers are still 168 million too much.

A welcome remark in the report is that poverty is certainly not the only reason why children do not attend school. This is also our experience as Stop Child Labour. Of course it is necessary to ensure that the income of both countries and families is increasing, but more is needed to combat child labour. According to ILO child labour also occurs in the middle income countries. Stop Child Labour puts it like this: "The fight against child labour does not need to wait for poverty alleviation. In fact it is key to achieving sustainable socio-economic development."

Much doubt about the numbers
The report states that child labour in domestic work at home is not included in the figures. This, says the report, is because of lack of data and disagreement about the definition of 'hazardous household jobs'. The ILO estimated in a recent report the number of children working in other households at more than 10 million, but in the new report ILO suggests that this is probably an underestimate because not all these children are counted. Our experience is also that statistics on child labour – for instance in agriculture – are not always reliable.

It is also noted in the report that there are relatively few data on child labour 'in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Pacific, developed countries and several Asian countries'. However, no estimate is made how these missing figures (and from which countries?) could affect the overall picture.
The report does give figures by region or continent, but not by country. Data from 53 countries are used but it is not mentioned which countries. For example, are data from India part of the 'sample'? India –according to Unicef the country with most working children – never had a thorough ILO investigation on child labour. Estimates vary widely, from 12 to more than 60 million working children under 14 years. Figures on child workers aged 14 to 18 are not known at all.

It is also important to know from which countries data were used because the report finds that the largest decline in the number of working children took place in Asia – from 114 million in 2008 to 78 million children in 2012. In Africa and South America that decrease between 2008 and 2012 is "only" around 10%. The sharp decline in child labour therefore is primarily an Asian phenomenon without knowing from which Asian countries data were used, nor if these data are from the same countries as in previous investigations as well as how reliable these data are.

So there are enough reasons to have significant reservations about the statement that child labour has declined worldwide by a third since 2000 and that the figure now stands at 168 million.

No explanation for not achieving target in 2016
An important finding in the report is that 'the goal to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by 2016 [will] clearly not be met'. Nevertheless, it is concluded that the strategy of the ILO in general and that of The Hague Road Map from 2010 'seem to be sound' and producing positive outcomes 'in terms of strategic policy direction'. That are rather vague statements.

If Asia has achieved such remarkable results in reducing child labour it will be of great benefit to know where exactly and how this was achieved so that it can be replicated in other parts of the world. However, the report does not provide such an analysis. The report also does not explain why the goal of elimination of the worst forms of child labour worldwide is far from being achieved. Neither does it identify more effective strategies for eliminating all child labour, including the worst forms of child labour, at a more rapid pace.

Moreover, it is a rather one-sided view that the ILO mentions as a reason for the decline in child labour almost exclusively the work of governments, employers and workers – its members – and not others such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), companies and multi-stakeholder initiatives. Yet they are also very important forces behind the actions of governments and behind successful programs aimed at the elimination of child labour. A clear recognition of this would help to strengthen the worldwide movement against child labour.

Combating all forms of child labour remains need of the hour
The campaign Stop Child Labour advocates already for more than 10 years for an integrated area-based approach to tackle all forms of child labour that hinder education and/or threaten health.(2) We reject a one-sided focus on the worst forms of child labour. Such a focus complicates solutions to get all working children to school and keep them there. Stop Child Labour works with local organizations in India, Africa and Latin America towards strengthening and expanding Child Labour Free Zones; where all children are being withdrawn from work and (re)integrated into formal, full-time and quality education. In the recent Kampala Declaration, representatives of 24 – mostly African – countries and international organizations committed themselves to the implementation of this area based approach towards creating Child Labour Free Zones. During the Global Child Labour Conference in Brazil in October this year, Stop Child Labour will actively promote this area based approach and the concept of Child Labour Free Zones.

download report Marking progress against child labour - Global estimates and trends 2000-2012 (ILO, 23-9-2013)

(1) See report Marking progress against child labour (ILO, Sep 23, 2013)
(2) See Seven reasons why the world should: Eradicate All Child Labour / Get Every Child Into School (Stop Child Labour, 2010)

India Committee of the Netherlands - September 27, 2013