Op-Ed: At least 78 million reasons to eradicate child labour- the remaining task in the Asia Pacific region

Asia is the world’s fast growing economic region but millions of the continent’s workers are children. There are more child labourers here than in any other region in the world. In fact, half of the world’s child labourers are in the Asia Pacific, according to International Labour Organisation. These are children still waiting for their most basic of rights to be granted.

Although the region has made meaningful efforts and improved legal frameworks, particularly related to trafficking in persons and the establishment the new tracking systems to enhance enforcement, there still is much to be done.

There continue to be 78 million child labourers in Asia Pacific, equivalent to almost 10 per cent of all children in the region. Asia Pacific also owns the sad global record of having most trafficking victims, involved in commercial sexual exploitation, forced labour and other worst forms of child labour.

Half of the world’s child workers are in the Asia Pacific.

Estimates based on national households surveys capture children involved in hazardous work, but many are uncounted because of the illegal and, often, inaccessible trades they’re involved in. Many are secluded in hazardous household work, debt bondage, the sexual trade, compulsory labour or other forms of slavery that fail to be recorded. What’s more, studies that count child labourers are often based on small surveys or rapid assessments, failing to paint a full picture. For this reason, the real number of child workers in Asia Pacific must be much higher.

What we do know, however, is that more than 1.5 million children are working under conditions of forced labour to produce bricks, carpets, embellished textiles and quarry stones in India and Nepal. In Bangladesh about 24 per cent of children working in the dried fish industry are working under conditions of force. In China, there have been reports of children making electronics and toys. In India, Vietnam and Thailand young hands sew garments together. In Myanmar, children are involved in the rubber, teak, bamboo and sugar industry. In Thailand, children work in rice mills and the shrimp industry. The list goes on and on.

Still, all child labourers have something in common. They have no freedom. They work for low or no wages. They work under the threat of violence. They are foregoing their education and their childhood.

What’s more, these children share something else: they are from a socially disadvantaged or social excluded background. Some children inherit debt from their parents and may be bought and sold between contractors. Some children come from lower castes (India, Bangladesh or Nepal cases) and are involved in the poverty cycle where families receive an advance payment and become bonded for generations to pay off debt. Other children are members of indigenous groups or from ethnic or religious minorities and are routinely discriminated against.

What’s worse is that even the most updated laws are failing to adequately protect children. In India, the recent set of amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 enables children to work in family enterprises and in the audio visual entertainment industry. The amendments – made last month - potentially open loopholes that will sustain or, even, encourage more child labour. The term ‘family enterprises’ can trap children who make carpets or polish gems as these industries often take place in family homes. In other instances, the law can further increase domestic labour duties for girls.

What laws are not addressing is the root cause. Poverty, the lack of decent work for adults, the lack of social protection and a failure to ensure that all children are attending school through to the legal minimum age are the reasons why child labour persists in this region. Governments would be better served to address these problems, which would further diminish child labour.

The global community is urging all countries to take action. The proposal for the Sustainable Development Goals post 2015 would take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour and eradicate forced labour. By 2025, the new goals aim to end child labour in all its forms including recruitment and the use of child soldiers. The goals also aim to eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in both the public and private spheres. Countries would be expected to make significant progress on stopping human trafficking, ending sexual exploitation of children and preventing all forms of violence and torture against children. It is a challenge to imagine this reality in south Asia 10 years from now, unless social inequalities are addressed.

All child workers have something in common. They have no freedom. They work for low or no wages. They work under the threat of violence. They are foregoing their education and their childhood.

Since 2002, 12 June serves as a date for the world to renew its call to eradicate the child labour, especially in the worst forms. This year, on 12 June the focus is on the importance of quality education as a key step in tackling child labour. As such, we at World Vision are urging the region’s leaders to take action.

Governments should ensure they have effective and implementable laws that have legal protections related to the minimum age of workers. Laws should prevent children from being involved in hazardous work and ensure effective child labour inspections. There should be intra-government coordination, particularly to address trafficking. They should be free, compulsory and quality education for all children to the minimum age for admission to employment. Action needs to be taken to reach those presently in child labour. And there should be policies that ensure sufficient investment in the teaching profession.

Specifically to these countries in Asia and the Pacific, we will call for:

  • Nepal to create a revised list of hazardous occupations prohibited to children.
  • Papua New Guinea to adopt a list of hazardous work prohibited by children.
  • Nepal, Bangladesh and India to enhance data collection to include disaggregated data on trafficking in persons cases to identify the number of child trafficking victims and to pursue the perpetrators of child trafficking violations in all the region.
  • India to provide special protection of children involved in child labour in the agriculture and in the manufacturing sectors.

Yes, I believe a holistic approach can adequately address the root causes of child labour, including social protection and poverty alleviation policies. Having a coordinated and comprehensive child protection system with response mechanisms is also part of the solution. But the ratification of international conventions, the installation of laws or policies and specific strategies to reach vulnerable families and children at the State level will not be enough if society remains permissive on child labour.

To be a guide in the process of ending child labour, there are many things that can be done.

Civil society and media can change attitudes that condone child labour. More awareness can be raised about the harmful development effects of child labour on children’s physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual growth.

Shoppers and consumers can be smart. They can demand products that do not use child labour in any part of their supply chain. Some of the other top offenders in Asia Pacific include: carpets, bricks, rice embellished textiles, stones, dried fish, shrimp, rubber, bamboo and sugarcane. Look for options that assure consumers that the products were not made in slave like conditions. By demanding these products, we can be smarter consumers who can stop the child labour in the worst forms.

Families and religious communities can put in place protective practices that lead to the eradication of the hazardous practices and gender base violence. They can challenge social norms, stereotypes and prejudices that silently condone child labour.

Each of us can do something to alleviate the suffering of millions of children.

What do you plan to do?