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Children engaged in hazardous labour risk serious injury and miss out on education

An estimated 246 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 are engaged in child labour, according to the latest estimates from the International Labour Organization (ILO). Of these, nearly 70 percent, or 171 million children, work in hazardous situations or conditions, such as in mines, with chemicals and pesticides in agriculture or with dangerous machinery. Some 73 million of them are less than 10 years old. [figure 3.6]

Working children's physical immaturity leaves them more exposed to work-related illnesses and injuries than adults, and they may be less aware of risks involved in their occupations and place of work. Illnesses and injuries include punctures, breaking or complete loss of body parts, burns and skin disease, eye and hearing impairment, respiratory and gastro-intestinal illnesses, fever and headaches from excessive heat in the fields or in factories.

But it is not only injury, sickness and even death that children risk when involved in hazardous labour. They also often miss out on an education that would provide the foundation for future employment in less dangerous occupations when they become adults.

The scale of the worst forms of child labour makes it an urgent issue for the Millennium agenda, especially in the area of education. Unless millions of children currently working in hazardous conditions are reached, the goals of attaining universal primary education (MDG 2) and gender parity in primary and secondary education (a key indicator for MDG 3) will not be reached.

A key starting point will be to step up efforts to immediately eliminate the worst forms of child labour, as stipulated by the ILO Convention No. 182. Safe, accessible and high-quality education is the best way to encourage families to send their children to school and to prevent children from engaging in the worst forms of labour.

Children in domestic service are among the most invisible child labourers. Their life and labour are entirely dependent on the whims of their employer. The number of children involved in domestic service around the world is unquantifiable, since formal employment contracts are rarely involved and official data are therefore not gathered. But the numbers certainly run into millions.

Many of these are girls, and in many countries domestic service is seen as the only avenue for a young girl though in some places such as Nepal and South Africa, boys are more likely to be domestic workers than girls. Children working in domestic service are generally paid little or nothing over and above food and lodging. Many are banned altogether from attending classes or have so many restrictions placed upon them that it becomes impossible for them to attend school. All too often domestic service becomes a 24-hour job, with the child perpetually on call and subject to the whims of all family members.

In addition, children in domestic service are especially susceptible to physical and psychological harm. Many are forced to undertake tasks that are completely inappropriate to their age and physical strength. The food they are given is often nutritionally inadequate, vastly inferior to the meals eaten by the employing family. In Haiti, for example, 15-year-old domestic workers were found to be on average four centimetres shorter and 40 pounds lighter than 15-year-olds not in domestic service in the same area.

Child domestic workers frequently suffer physical abuse as punishment for an ill-performed task or simply as a routine means of ensuring their submission. They are also at extreme risk of sexual abuse. Rapid assessment research in El Salvador found that 66 per cent of girls in domestic service reported having been physically or psychologically abused, many of them sexually, and that the threat of sexual advances from employers was ever-present.