“Let the Shine of Progress against Child Labour not Tarnish”

News | 12 June 2018
Ms Simrin Singh, Country Director, ILO Country Office for Sri Lanka and the Maldives
“Here, sniff this. It is Jasmine essential oil” said the leather tannery owner in a South Asian town handing a vial over to me. “It will remove any nausea you feel from the smell here. It is a tried and tested cure.”

I was deeply uneasy and queasy, but it wasn’t the smell that needed a cure. It was the leather tannery itself, and the presence of labouring children probably aged 13 (no birth certificates to verify their age) but who looked closer to age 10. Mostly boys, deeply impoverished, malnourished, considered the bottom rung of society, their young bodies and minds exposed to toxic chemicals, handling dead animal carcasses with their bare hands (and sometime teeth), in temperatures as high as 45 degrees Celsius. Where was their family? Why weren’t they in school? Where were they living? Where was their childhood and dignity?

That experience could not be further from what “Generation Safe and Healthy” is all about, the theme for the World Day Against Child Labour marked on 12 June 2018.

I’ve spent close to 20 years working to bring an end to child labour as part of the ILO, hand in hand with hundreds of diverse and dedicated partners across Asia, Africa, and beyond. We know that child labour has no place in the 21st century. It has no societal or economic benefit (despite sadly ill-informed and ill-founded arguments to the contrary), nor any place in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals. It can be eliminated. We know precisely how. And society and economies will benefit. In fact, child labour globally has been on a steady, though fragile, decline due to this know how.

Arriving in Sri Lanka in early 2017 and seeing the progress made to end child labour has been a much needed breath of fresh air, though the job of total elimination is still not complete. With a child labour prevalence at 1% of the child population, Sri Lanka shines compared to its South Asian neighbours, and across the Indian Ocean. Children by and large are in school, not in exploitative labour. Schooling is now compulsory up to the age of 16, soon to be harmonized with the minimum age for employment. Hazardous forms of work are banned, policies are in place, dedicated officers from Colombo to the districts across departments have been trained on how to detect and deal with child labour, and communities have begun to realise that the long term cost of child labour outweighs any short term benefits.

That being said, the shine of progress can easily be tarnished. Children, often boys, the older teenagers and risk takers 15-18 years are disproportionately vulnerable to work-related hazards, injury, and exploitation. With limited prospects and preparedness for good jobs, an inability to negotiate employment terms, large levels of economic informality, gendered inequalities and disparities in most socio-economic spheres, the “macro” factors present clear threats to making this generation safe, healthy and prosperous.

Sri Lanka must not be complacent. The year 2025, declared as a target for the eradication of child labour, is just a few short years away. Sri Lanka is well placed to achieve this target, and has made highly visible international commitments towards the same.

The time is now, to not only reach the target in Sri Lanka, but to also inspire other countries along the way. The tried and tested cures to child labour are known. On this World Day Against Child Labour, it is time to ensure that the elimination of child labour – and the promotion of #GenerationSafeAndHealthy – is indeed the “scent” of Sri Lanka’s success.

By Ms Simrin Singh, Country Director, ILO Country Office for Sri Lanka and the Maldives