The ‘Gray Areas’ of Child Labor

Earlier in the week NPR’s Neal Conan interviewed Jane Stewart, special representative and director of the International Labour Organization’s office to the United Nations, formerly minister of human resources in Canada.

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

The campaign to eliminate the horrors of child labor has a long way to go. Nearly a quarter-billion children between the ages of 5 and 17 currently work under conditions that are considered illegal, hazardous or extremely exploitative, and the global economic slowdown isn’t helping.

But there is a continuum of children at work: child soldiers, factory slaves and the sex trade on one end; at the other, families who rely on kids to work on the family farm or get a job at a fast-food joint to help in hard times.

Somewhere in the middle, there’s a gray area. Whenever you think about a job – if it robs a child of their future, or just helps out the family, might just depend on how good the rest of your choices are.

Ms. JANE STEWART (Director, Office to the United Nations, International Labour Organization): It’s a pleasure, Neal. Thanks for the opportunity.

CONAN: And obviously, child soldiers, sexual exploitation is unacceptable under any circumstances. Once you get into the gray area, though, don’t different cultures draw those lines in different places?

Ms. STEWART: At the ILO, we look at child labor quite specifically. And maybe it’s a good place to start to talk about what child labor is. As you point out, Neal, there are the unconditional, worst forms of child labor that must be eliminated. Those are slavery and prostitution, pornography, illicit activities.

There’s also labor that jeopardizes the physical or mental and moral well-being of a child, and that’s called hazardous work. But then there’s also – and this is very important – labor performed by a child whos under the minimum age.

And this is important because working can impede the child’s education and full development. And for healthy and robust and productive societies, having children well-educated, and able to engage at the right age in productive activities, is really important.

CONAN: And at the same time, if they’re not – obviously – allowed to pursue their education, that just – well, perpetuates poverty.

Ms. STEWART: It is. It’s a vicious cycle, then. And one of the things that we know to be true is the more education a young child has the opportunity to have, the better able he or she is to participate in healthy youth employment activities, and then go on to be a real contributor, supporting themselves and their families.

CONAN: Well, I think something – according to a report that came out last spring from your organization, 50 percent of all people in developing countries working today, work in agriculture. Well, does that count as exploitative or not?

Ms. STEWART: There’s no question, when we look at the sectors where child labor occurs, agriculture is probably the largest. About 60 percent of the child labor is in the agricultural sector.

The challenge is to really drill down and deal with the root causes of child labor. And when we’re talking about agriculture, it means we’ve got to increase the productivity of parents who are providing for their families through agricultural means to make sure the infrastructure is there, and to help them in that regard.

We also have to be sure that quality, free education is available for their children, and that there are social protection programs in place that will allow parents to work, and children to go to school.


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