In observance of the World Day Against Child Labor, the International Labor Organization is calling for stepped up action to eliminate the use of children as workers, which is rising globally for the first time in 20 years.
The latest figures show 160 million children, nearly 1 in 10 worldwide, are engaged in child labor. Half this number are working in the most hazardous forms of child labor, such as agriculture, construction, mining, and domestic labor. The ILO says the children are forced to work long hours for low pay under dangerous conditions that can pose a threat to their physical and mental health, even leading to death.
After three decades of progress toward the elimination of child labor, the ILO reports an increase between 2016 and 2020 of more than 8 million children working in hazardous conditions.
"It worries me that in an era of many rapid advances, including the ratification of the Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labor and progress towards the universal ratification of Convention 138, so many children are still left behind," said Manuela Tomei, ILO assistant director-general. ILO Convention No. 138 addresses the minimum age at which children are legally allowed to work.
Last year, delegates who went to Durban, South Africa for the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labor issued a global call for action, noting that time was running out for meeting the goal of eliminating this scourge in 2025.
Among its many proposals for tackling the problem, the conference emphasized the importance of providing children with access to a quality education which, it noted, was the gateway to providing them with a brighter, sustainable future.
Tomei said Durban's call for action sends a clear message that "the promotion of decent work for adults is key to eradicating child labor."
Unfortunately, she noted that the goal was still far from being realized.
"Over 244 million children and young people across the world are still out of school," she said. "This dramatically impairs the future opportunities of these children to access decent employment and good standards of living in their adulthood.
"To this effect, it is important that efforts are undertaken to eliminate direct and indirect barriers to schooling, paying particular attention to the situation of girls," she said.
The ILO reports that conflicts, natural and man-made crises, and the COVID-19 pandemic have plunged more families into poverty and forced millions more children into child labor over the past few years.
It reports that Africa has the largest number of child laborers, with more than 72 million, including 31.5 million employed in hazardous work. It notes Asia and the Pacific region rank second highest, adding that all three areas account for nearly nine out of every 10 children working globally.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi headed the global march against child labor 25 years ago, which galvanized the international community to more vigorously push for the protection and promotion of the rights of children.
Speaking at an ILO event Monday to mark this year's World Day Against Child Labor, he said he could still feel the energy.
"I can still hear those loud slogans when hundreds of children and their supporters entered this building, shouting, 'No more tools in tiny hands. We want books. We want toys. No more child exploitation. We want education.'"
Unfortunately, he acknowledged that the promise shown on that day was still a distant dream. He told delegates social injustice and discrimination were behind soaring rates of child labor around the world, especially in Africa.
"Today, when we are sitting here, my dear sisters and brothers, 10,000 African children are entering or pushed into child labor. … And the total number of child laborers in Africa is more than the total number of children in Europe. This is unacceptable."
Satyarthi noted that the last three decades have shown child labor can be eliminated if the root causes of poverty are addressed. He said a group of 45 peace laureates has demanded that nations provide an additional $53 billion to tackle and eliminate child labor.
"This additional money can ensure education, health care, and protection for all children in the world," he said. "Plus, it will also help the newly born children, mothers, and pregnant women."
He added, "This is less than 10 days of global military expenditure annually. This is not a big deal."