IT is one of the grimmer ironies of the age that even as global employment rates for adults are declining, the incidence of child labor - often forced, frequently debilitating - is on the increase.
As many as a quarter of all children between ages 10 and 14 in some regions of the world may be working, according to a report issued today by the Geneva-based International Labor Organization (ILO). Many are employed illegally. Many work in dangerous conditions. Most lack education and are condemned to long-term poverty.
"The numbers have been increasing quietly over the past five years and not a lot of attention has been given to it," says Susan Gunn, an ILO expert on child labor.
The report defines child labor as a condition in which children are exploited, overworked, deprived of health and education - "or just deprived of their childhood." Just how many children are affected is hard to say, since most work illegally or for small merchants, family cottage industries, and farms, where they are "invisible to the collectors of labor-force statistics," says the ILO study, entitled "Child Labor: A Dramatically Worsening Global Problem."
It says the figure is certainly in the hundreds of millions, including 7 million in Brazil alone. And as the numbers have risen, childrens' work conditions have deteriorated. At least half a million children are employed in Pakistan's lucrative carpet industry, according to the Pakistan Bonded Labor Liberation Front. As elsewhere in South Asia, a region which annually exports $50 billion worth of carpets to the United States and Europe, most of the work is done by children under 14. Many labor from dawn to dusk in cramped, poorly ventilated rooms. Many end up blind or diseased.
Other health hazards are faced by youngsters who are forced to work in mines or brickyards, glass works or pencil factories. Different risks, including social isolation and physical and sexual abuse, confront children who work as domestics, the report says.
Child labor is legally banned in most nations. With the help of small, overworked enforcement agencies child labor laws are usually observed in large businesses and industries. "We're holding the line in the formal sector," Dr. Gunn says.
But often extreme abuses occur in the harder-to-police informal economic sector which is growing rapidly because of the urban migration occurring throughout the developing world.
The reasons for the increase in child labor are not hard to isolate. The main problem is endemic third-world poverty, which has necessitated sending children into the workplace to help supplement family incomes. In Africa, a combination of civil wars, political turmoil, and natural disasters has led to massive population transfers and the breakup of families, forcing more children to support themselves. In South Asia, millions more children are "bonded," or committed to work by their parents in repayment
of family debts.
In many third-world nations the problem is exacerbated as financially strapped governments have cut expenditures for education, or when school fees are increased beyond the ability of parents to pay. With no chance to go to school, children gravitate toward the marketplace.
Some 40 nations adhere to a 1973 ILO covenant that requires signatories to set a minimum age for entry into the workplace. But ILO officials acknowledge that without pressure for enforcement from the media and human-rights groups, correcting the abuses will be difficult.
"One priority is to see that kids are removed from hazardous occupations and not forced to work," Gunn says. Compulsory primary education for all children is another step, she adds.