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Children pay high price for cheap labour

Some work from 6 in the morning until 7 at night for less than 20 cents a day.

Millions of children work to help their families in ways that are neither harmful nor exploitative. But millions more are put to work in ways that drain childhood of all joy - and crush the right to normal physical and mental development.

This is the kind of work that the Convention on the Rights of the Child seeks to end. Article 32 sets out the right "to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development."

By and large, it is the children of marginalized communities, their futures already threatened by inadequate diet and health care, who are at greatest risk from exploitation at work. In India, the majority of children in servitude are children from low castes or tribal minorities. In Latin America, the highest incidence of child labour is found among the indigenous people.

Often such children are as young as six or seven years old. Often their hours of labour are 12 to 16 hours a day. Often their place of work is the sweatshop, the mine, the refuse heap, or the street. Often the work itself is dull, day-long, repetitive, low-paid or unpaid. Sometimes the child works under the threat of violence and intimidation, or is subject to sexual exploitation.

In the 1990s, child labour has found a new niche in the rapidly expanding export industries of some developing countries. In one small carpet factory in Asia, children as young as five were found to work from 6 in the morning until 7 at night for less than 20 cents a day. In another, they sat alongside adults for 12 to 14 hours in damp trenches, dug to accommodate the carpet looms on which they wove. In a garment factory, nine-year-olds worked around the clock sewing shirts for three days at a stretch, permitted only two one-hour breaks, during which they were forced to sleep next to their machines. Extracting such high human cost, child labour is nevertheless cheap. A shirt that sells in the United States for $60 can cost less than 10 cents in labour.

Such labour takes an enormous toll on children, in stunted intellectual and physical development, in chronic lung diseases, in ruined eyesight and bone deformations, and sometimes in death.

Those who survive pay a high price in lost development, often passing that price on to their own children, forging the shackles of poverty, ignorance and servitude across the generations.

No one knows how many children labour around the world. Clear data are not available. Some of the most widespread forms - domestic service, agricultural and bonded labour - are largely invisible to surveys and statistics. Yet enough studies have now been done to indicate the scale of the problem.

In India, between 5% and 30% of the 340 million children under the age of 16 are estimated to fall under the definition of child labour. In Africa, over 20% of children are thought to be economically active. In Latin America, the proportion is estimated between 10% and 25%.

Child labour can be ended, and the right of the child to be protected from exploitation can be enforced, by new laws, by enforcing existing laws, by media pressure, and by enrolling more children in school.

Following media exposure, for example, consumer boycotts of Asian carpets in European countries have begun to bite. A child-labour-free trademark should soon be appearing on the carpets produced by Indian manufacturers that meet the requirements of the Rugmark Foundation - an organization whose members include non-governmental organizations (NGOs), representatives of the German Export Promotion Council, UNICEF, and owners of Indian carpet companies. Participating industries have agreed to allow monitoring of their factories at regular intervals - and spot checks by NGOs.

Ultimately, it is the meeting of another basic right - the right to education - that can do most to protect the child from economic exploitation. Children cannot be abused in fields or factories if they are sitting in classrooms. And it is, above all, increasing school enrolment and retention that will withdraw millions of children from the workforces of the world.

Unfortunately, the children most likely to be exploited are those who are hardest to reach with conventional schooling (see More of the same will not be enough).

Labour list
The following table lists estimates that have been made for child labour in the nations with the largest under-16 populations.

China (340 m. under-16s)                          No data

India (340 m. under-16s)
Ministry of Labour, 1987-1988 (2)             17.5 million
Baroda Operations Research Group,
1983 (2)                                      44.0 million
Bangalore Center for Concern for
Working children, 1994*, Based on
children out of school (2)                   100.0 million

Indonesia (69 m. under-16s)
ILO, 1992. Ages 10-14 (1)                      2.3 million
Population census, 1990.
Ages 10-14 (2)
UNCHR, 1994*. Ages 10-14 (3)

Pakistan (62 m. under 16s)
Pakistan Labour Force Survey,
1990-1991. Ages 10-14 (2)                      2.0 million
ILO, 1993*, Bonded child labour (4)            7.5 million
Pakistan Institute of Development
Economics, 1994.  Under-15s (2)               19.0 million

United States (60 m. under-16s)
National Safe Workplace Institute,
1993*. Ages 12-17 (5)                          5.5 million

Brazil (55 m. under-16s)
Brazilian Institute for Geography and
Statistics, 1994. Ages 10-13 (2)              2.0 million
UNCHR, 1994* (3)                              7.0 million

Nigeria (50 m. under-16s)
UNCHR, 1994* (3)                              12.0 million

Bangladesh (49 m. under-16s)
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics,
1990. Ages 10-14 (2)                           5.7 million
ICFTU, 1993 (2)                               15.0 million

Mexico (35m. under-16s)
ILO, 1993*, Ages 12-14			       1.3 million

Russian Fed. (35 m. under-16s)                     No data

Iran (30 m. under-16s)                             No data

Viet Nam                                           No data

Philippines (27 m. under-16s)                      
Philippine Department of Labor and
Employment, 1991. Ages 10-17 (2)               2.2 million
Philippine Department of Labor and
Employment, 1994 (2)                           5.0 million

Egypt (25 m. under-16s)
ILO, 1991. Under-15s (1)                       0.4 million
government survey, 1988.
Ages 6-14 (2)                                  1.4 million

*Year of publication consulted.


1 International Labour Organisation, 1994 yearbook of labour statistics, 1995.

2 Bureau of International Affairs, US Department of Labor, By the sweat and toil of children: the use of child labour in American imports, report to Congress, 15 July 1994.

3 United Nations Commission on Human Rights, `Rights of the child: sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography', E/CN.4/1994/84, report by Special Rapporteur, 14 January 1994.

4 International Labour Organisation, World labour report 1992, 1993.

5 International Federation of Chemical, Energy and General Workers Unions, Focus on health, safety and the environment, no. 1, 1993.

Under-16s: United Nations, World population prospects; the 1994 revision, 1994.

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