Eradicating child labor requires a holistic, accelerated approach
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On Thursday, the International Labor Organization released new figures on the scope of child labor across the globe. And the news is deeply distressing. For all that nations, non-governmental organizations, and brave individuals have done to eliminate this scourge, for the first time in 20 years, the number of children whose budding potential is thwarted by labor has increased.

According to these figures, 160 million children toil in child labor worldwide, 79 million of them in hazardous conditions, including in forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation. It’s an increase of 8 million since 2016 — a heartbreaking step backward in an arduous global fight. And in sub-Saharan Africa the situation got even worse, as more children were engaged in child labor (88.7 million) than in the rest of the world combined.

This is a harsh wakeup call to the global community: more must be done, even while the task is made more onerous, as COVID ravages economies.

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At the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, our reporting over nearly 20 years has remained remarkably consistent on this issue: in order to accelerate change for children, governments must do more to effectively enforce the labor laws on their books, protect workers’ fundamental rights, and provide adequate social protection for families, including income support, so that children are less vulnerable and their families are less desperate. This is a challenge when more than 60 percent of the world’s workers are in the informal economy, where they can easily fall through the cracks.

Child labor perpetuates the cycle of poverty across generations. We must end that cycle. Studies show that addressing the exploitation of child labor helps a country’s overall economy by contributing to more rapid growth, increased food security, and strengthened public health outcomes, among others.

We at ILAB believe a holistic approach to ending child labor has the best chance of success, both in the near and long term. This means addressing the socio-economic, cultural, and political factors that facilitate and perpetuate child labor, rather than approaching the issue in isolation. Placing children’s rights at the center is critical, while also meeting the needs of their families, communities and nations. We know that efforts to remove children from work should always be undertaken with attention to broader economic and labor market conditions — including the economic security and worker protections afforded to parents.

This is why we fund international projects to address root causes of child labor, including poverty and lack of access to social protection, and projects that promote the occupational safety and health of children of legal working age, as well as adult workers. Many of the projects we fund promote children’s access to quality education. Many also offer age-appropriate opportunities for children’s participation in vocational training and apprenticeships. For example, the ILAB-funded Paraguay Okakuaa project has implemented educational programs for in-school and after-school enrichment for approximately 3,500 children, referred more than 500 families to social protection programs, and offered vocational training and economic empowerment activities to nearly 1,500 families, with a focus on services to adolescent girls and women in rural areas.

Our reports also approach child labor within a broader context. The country profiles in our Findings of the Worst Forms of Child Labor report highlight links between child labor and these socio-economic, cultural, and political factors. This report also offers concrete actions governments can take to increase access to education; strengthen rule of law; advance human rights, including workers’ rights; and improve social programs to combat food insecurity, discrimination and related challenges. Similarly our List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor helps to focus attention on labor abuses in supply chains and spur engagement and action by governments and private sector stakeholders to address these problems.

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Since the early months of the pandemic, our department has encouraged partners to integrate efforts to combat child labor into broader COVID-19 responses. This means including information about child labor risks in at-home learning resources distributed to children and families. It also involves combining anti-child labor messaging with food distribution and other philanthropic assistance efforts.

Elevating workers’ voices can also strengthen efforts to combat labor abuse in supply chains. Private sector leadership and accountability is critical to positive business transformation. To assist, we developed an app called Comply Chain that lays out a step-by-step guide to developing robust social compliance programs to prevent, detect and address child labor in supply chains.

While the path to a world free of child labor is fraught with challenges, we must continue toward this ambitious goal. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Safety and security don’t just happen. We owe our children, the most vulnerable in our society, a life free of violence and fear.”

We know it will take all of us working together to create meaningful change toward the eradication of child labor exploitation across the globe. Together, we can build a world where children are free to learn and play. This is our greatest hope for a better tomorrow.

Thea Lee is the Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor.