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At least 15 million children at work in Latin America The most intolerable forms of child labour targeted at the Cartagena Meeting


Press release | 07 May 1997


GENEVA (ILO News) ­ In a new international offensive against the most intolerable forms of child labour, government ministers and senior officials from 20 Latin-American countries will meet in Cartagena on 8 and 9 May to reaffirm the region's political commitment to combating and eliminating the exploitation of millions of child workers.

Organized by the Government of Colombia in close collaboration with the International Labour Organization, the First Latin-American Meeting on Child Labour will bring together international experts as well as trade union and employers' representatives in an attempt to increase public awareness of the tragedies being suffered by millions of Latin-American children who ­ be it labouring in fields from dawn till dusk, firing bricks in blazing kilns, digging up stones in quarries or engaging in prostitution on the streets of the big cities ­ live and work in wretched conditions.

The opening ceremony will be held at the Las Américas Hotel at 9 a.m. on Friday 9 May in the presence of the Colombian President, Mr. Ernesto Samper Pizano, and the Director-General of the ILO, Mr. Michel Hansenne.

A report prepared by the ILO ( Endnote 1) for the Cartagena Meeting estimates that no less than 15 million children work in Latin America, with approximately half of these child workers between the ages of six and 14 years old. "In numerical terms ­ says Mr. Hansenne ­ these figures might appear relatively low in comparison to the 250 million children the ILO believes work throughout the world. The figures become more alarming however when translated into the fact that one in every five Latin-American children is a child worker."

The Cartagena Meeting on child labour is being held at a time when the region's economies are experiencing a phase of development characterized by scant employment creation in the modern sector, the growth of informal work, the dwindling role of the State as employer, the stagnation of real wages and persistent poverty in the majority of countries.( Endnote 2 )"At the same time" ­ notes the report ­ "the number and proportion of children starting work at an early age is on an upward trend."

Available statistics show that between 20 and 25 per cent of children between the ages of six and 14 are currently working in Latin America, a labour force representing on average just under 5 per cent of the economically active population in the region. "This proportion" ­ indicates the ILO report ­ "is relatively close to the rate of open unemployment, which suggests that child labour is, to a greater or lesser extent, acting as a labour force reserve."

The majority of children who work do so in conditions that are clearly dangerous for their safety, health and emotional stability; they are subjected to physical and moral indignities and to exhausting working hours stretching far beyond the limits set by legislation.

In the agricultural sector ­ where, according to the report, almost 60 per cent of the child labour force is concentrated and which, in the opinion of the experts, is one of the most dangerous and difficult environments ­ children work at the mercy of the elements, in unnatural positions, are exposed to chemical substances, sharp tools and animal and insect bites. Children from rural areas, and girls in particular, usually begin working between the ages of five and seven.

Child labour has been gradually spreading through towns and cities as a result of urbanization. Here children work in micro-enterprises, informal sector workshops, street markets or in the provision of petty services. Hundreds of thousands of girls ­ approximately 10 per cent of the child labour force according to the report ­ work long days as domestic workers in an environment where beatings, insults and sexual harassment are all too common.

A common sight in the urban centres of Latin America, street children represent between 5 per cent and 20 per cent of the children and adolescents working in cities. Children can be found working as rag pickers and garbage collectors, and they are also involved in marginal economic activities on the street. Delinquency and poverty drive thousands of street children into prostitution, pornography, drug trafficking and other illegal activities.

The ILO warns of the special fragility of children from indigenous populations who may work "two or three times more than the rest of the population".

Although the modern sector of the economy employs only an inconsequential level of child manpower (less than 10 per cent) the report calls attention to hidden methods of contracting under-aged workers such as "home work, subcontracting to micro-enterprises in the informal sector, and in particular, small and medium-sized plantations, where such workers abound but where their participation is underestimated, as they are employed either as the unpaid helpers of their parents or clandestinely".

Unlike the other regions of the world where child manpower costs little or nothing, in Latin America there is a large category of wage-earning children. The ILO report puts at between 45 and 50 per cent the number of wage-earning children in the ten to 14 age group. The younger ones are generally unpaid family workers. But even when the children receive some form of remuneration for their work, it is invariably lower than adult earnings, even "when they work the same or even longer hours than the adults". In general, children are paid a pittance on the pretext that they are being offered the opportunity to learn a trade, and it is common ­ the report notes ­ "to artificially prolong the time of apprenticeship in order to go on paying a lower wage". In domestic service, children's remuneration is often limited to board and lodging.

The report recognizes that many poor families have little choice but to turn to child labour and that it would be difficult for them to resign themselves to its loss. Children can make a large contribution to the family income, particularly in households facing extreme poverty and especially in single parent households where the mother is the sole breadwinner. "It is very likely that many households not currently affected by dire poverty would become so if their younger members did not work."

However ­ the ILO points out ­ "not all poor children work and not all those who work are poor". Many destitute families continue to opt for education and will only see their children working as a last resort. Such families have a fundamental influence on the level of development of the education system, the proportion of potentially active adults, and access, or otherwise, to social services which enable adults with family responsibilities to work without having to rely on the help of their children.

Many Latin-American children work to pay for their studies. Although work makes schooling more difficult, and in many cases prevents it entirely, child labour has ceased to be synonymous with dropping out of school. In fact, between 28 per cent and 65 per cent of working children are studying at the same time. However, those who go to school as well as work face special difficulties in their schooling. Highly intensive work and extremely long days result in lack of punctuality and absenteeism; fatigue interferes with school performance. Children who work ­ as the report states ­ are more liable to fail at school.

This is why the ILO is calling on the governments of the region to undertake educational reform as a priority action in the campaign against child labour. "It is not always for work-related reasons" ­ explains the report ­ "that children do not attend school; the reasons are often linked to shortcomings in available education. There are still insufficient schools and the quality of education is generally only poor or mediocre. Many heads of households opt for work over schooling for their children because of the immediate advantages it offers in terms of income and entry to the labour market."

ILO action

The First Latin-American Meeting on the Elimination of Child Labour is part of a vigorous offensive the international community is leading against the exploitation of working children. The most recent inroads were made at the Amsterdam Conference in February this year, and action will be further intensified at the coming Oslo Conference scheduled for October 1997.

The ILO has been endeavouring to put an end to child labour since the Organization was founded in 1919. "The ILO doctrine is clear", observes ILO Director-General, Mr. Michel Hansenne, "work performed by children under the age of 15 in conditions which restrict their physical, intellectual or psychological development must be eliminated."

Today, the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138) is the principal ILO instrument in the field of child labour. The countries which have ratified it undertake to apply national policies aimed at ensuring the effective abolition of child labour and to progressively raise the minimum age of entry to employment or work until it reaches a level compatible with the full physical and mental development of young people.

In 1998 and 1999 the ILO will initiate the discussion and possible adoption of a new international Convention on the most intolerable forms of child exploitation, including the sale and trafficking of children, forced or compulsory labour, the use or supply of children for prostitution or pornography, and the use of minors in the production and trafficking of drugs. It is hoped that the Cartagena Meeting will be a major driving force towards this goal.

The current ILO offensive against child labour includes a technical cooperation programme designed to support countries in action taken to eliminate this problem. Established in 1992, the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) promotes coherent and dynamic cooperation between governments, workers' and employers' organizations, non-governmental organizations and other sectors of civil society. Largely thanks to a major financial contribution from the Government of Spain, the IPEC programme currently operates in 13 Latin American countries, giving impetus to over 170 activities, focused principally on the youngest children and on children exposed to the most extreme forms of exploitation and to abusive conditions.

The IPEC programme in Colombia, in close collaboration with the state coal company, is targeting the elimination of child labour in informal sector coal mines; in Peru, the programme's activities are focused on children who work in brickworks and quarries; in Brazil, attempts are being made to put an end to the exploitation of girls who fall victim to prostitution; in Guatemala, attention is centred on the minors who spend their time manufacturing fireworks; in Costa Rica, the programme seeks to prevent child labour in the banana industry, and so on.

It is hoped that a Final Declaration drawn up by the Cartagena Meeting will reaffirm the region's commitment to work towards the effective abolition of child exploitation in Latin America with the conviction, in the words of Mr. Michel Hansenne, that "a crime against a child anywhere will be considered a crime everywhere".

Endnote 1:

Primera Reunión Iberoamericana Tripartita de Nivel Ministerial. Cartagena de Indias, 8-9 de Mayo de 1997. Documento informativo núm. 1 ­ Situación del Trabajo Infantil en América Latina. International Labour Office, Lima, May 1997 (in Spanish only).

Endnote 2:

Panorama Laboral '96 ­ América Latina y el Caribe. International Labour Office, Lima. ISBN 1020-4318 (in Spanish only).