More than 1 in 10 children are trapped in child labour

The number of child labourers has decreased by a third since 2000, but there are still 168 million child workers.

The number of child labourers has declined by a third since 2000, a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has found, but there are still 168 million child labourers, accounting for 11 per cent of children aged 5-17. 

The ILO definition of child labour does not include all children in employment, but refers to “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” Of the 168 million child labourers, 85 million are engaged in hazardous work, defined as work that directly endangers their health, safety and moral development.

Sub-Sahara Africa has the highest rate of child labour, with 59 million or 1 in 5 children affected, but Asia-Pacific has the highest overall number of child workers, with 78 million.

The report reveals a few unexpected features of child labour. Firstly, it finds that child labour is not limited to the world’s poorest countries, suggesting that the factors affecting the number of child workers are more complex than poverty alone. Although the percentage of child labourers is highest in low income countries, the overall numbers of child workers is greater in middle income countries. Within countries, child labour isn’t confined to the poorest households.

Secondly, it notes that while child labour is highest in the agricultural sector, as might be expected, the number of children employed in the service sector has increased. This means policy-makers need to ensure that their interventions target the service and manufacturing industries as well as farming.

Finally, the report has found that child labour has decreased at a faster rate for girls than for boys (40 per cent versus 25 per cent.) However, it says it can be harder to monitor child labour among girls, particularly if they are doing domestic work in private households. This points to a broader problem with child labour: it’s very hard to measure. It’s often illegal and concentrated in the informal economy, and governments in the countries with the highest rates of child labour are unlikely to have strong data collection abilities.

UNICEF, for instance, publishes data on child labour by country, but many countries don’t submit any data for this. Of the countries reported on in its State of the World’s Children 2013 publication, Somalia, Benin and Burkina Faso were the worst offenders, with the percentage of child labour at 49 per cent, 46 per cent and 39 per cent respectively. Beyond Sub-Saharan Africa, Cambodia has the highest rate of child labour, at 36 per cent.

Even accounting for significant constraints in data collection, however,  the rate of child labour is worryingly high, with ILO set to miss its target of eliminating the worst forms of child labour by 2016.

 

Indian children work nearby to their parents at a construction project in Delhi, 2010. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.