News / Economy

Millions Of Children Working In Hazardous Forms Of Labor

A young man working in a cocoa field in Africa
A young man working in a cocoa field in Africa
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Lisa Schlein

A new report by the International Labor Organization warns a staggeringly high number of children still are caught in hazardous work.  In the lead-up to the World Day Against Child Labor on June 12, the ILO is calling for urgent action to halt this risky practice.  

The International Labor Organization reports more than one half of the world’s 215 million child laborers are trapped in hazardous work.  Every day, it says a child laborer somewhere in the world suffers a work-related accident, illness or psychological trauma.

The report says the most hazardous work includes agriculture, fishing, domestic service, mining and quarrying and street and service industries.  The author of the report, Constance Thomas, describes the brutal and risky conditions under which children work, all of which jeopardizes their health and their moral and psychological development.

“We are dealing with a complete range from exploitation, physical, psychological, sexual in some areas to carrying very heavy loads, to being exposed to chemicals…to working long hours…to working in repetitive tasks, to working in isolation…young children require that brain stimulation, that social stimulation and if they are isolated in mind-numbing repetitive types of work, it stunts development," said Thomas.

The study notes children are engaged in hazardous work in all countries.  This problem is not confined to developing countries.  It also exists in industrialized countries.  Evidence from the United States and Europe show young people are very vulnerable to workplace accidents.

The report says the largest number of children in hazardous work is in Asia and the Pacific.  But, ILO Child Labor Expert, Frank Hagemann, says the problem of children caught in hazardous work is worse in sub-Saharan Africa than in any other region of the world.

“The incidence of hazardous work among children is more than twice as high in sub-Saharan Africa as it is in Asia or in Latin America," said Hagemann. "Fifteen percent of all African children are in hazardous work…It has something to do with the prevalence of hazardous work in agriculture.  Agriculture is by far the most important employer in sub-Saharan Africa, much more so than in Asia or Latin America.”  

Despite this gloomy picture, the International Labor Organization says important progress has been made over the last decade.  It says nearly one-third fewer girls and one-quarter fewer boys now are working in the worst forms of child labor.

The report also finds the overall number of children aged five to 17 in hazardous work declined between 2004 and 2008.  But, the number aged 15 to 17 actually increased by 20 percent during the same period from 52 million to 62 million.

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