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Universal Children's Day: Stop violence against children in the workplace!

Every year, millions of children who work pay a heavy price in terms of pain and abuse for their labour. The "World Report on Violence Against Children", launched on Universal Children's Day says many of the world's more than 300 million child and adolescent workers suffer ill-treatment, physical and psychological violence, verbal or sexual abuse. The report paints a stark picture of the nature, extent and causes of violence against children, including forms of violence in places of work ILO Online reports.

Article | 17 November 2006

NEW YORK (ILO Online) - Among the settings where children are exposed to violence, the workplace should receive high priority. Targeted interventions to contact, rescue and rehabilitate children at risk of violence should be undertaken urgently in many countries, with the help of employers' organizations, trade unions and government agencies, including labour inspectorates.

The most common forms of violence against child labourers are of physical, psychological or sexual nature. According to the new UN report, the violence working children experience is often systematic and part of a collective workplace culture of physical brutality, shouting, bad language, and casual violence including sexual harassment, and in extreme cases, even rape or murder.

The most frequent harm to working children's well-being from the violence they experience, however, appears to be low self-esteem resulting from verbal abuse, humiliation and bullying. Such forms of psychological violence include shouting, scolding, insults, threats, obscene language, bullying, mobbing, isolation, marginalization, and repeated discriminatory treatment.

Though there is little hard data on the precise numbers of working children who suffer violence, especially for child workers in the informal economy where the majority are to be found, the evidence amounts to a shameful, hidden side to children in the workplace.

"Violence towards working children has only remained 'invisible' because the direct question is rarely put: data are systematically collected on violence against female and other workers, but child workers are ignored", explains Frans Roselaers, Director of the ILO's Department of Partnerships and Development Cooperation and member of the editorial board of the report.

Factors fuelling workplace violence

Many forces compel children into at-risk work to support their own or their families' daily existence. "It is difficult to establish categorically where work beneficial for future working life stops, and exploitation and abuse begin. In many societies, parents place greater value on children being employed in economic activities than going to school - particularly where the quality and relevance of the available schooling is low. Children in such societies and situations are induced to work by the family or the employer and tend to do as they are told", explains Roselaers.

The taking-in of children from other households to perform domestic work is a good example. In many societies, it has long been seen as a form of surrogacy, adoption or assisting a child from a less fortunate family. Today, such practices have become commercialized. In 2004, the ILO estimated that there were around 250,000 in Haiti, 200,000 in Kenya and 100,000 in Sri Lanka, for example.

Although a small proportion are boys, domestic work is normally consigned to female workers and is the largest employment category of girls under 16 years in the world. According to the report, it has increasingly become a form of unregulated employment and exploitation, even of servitude.

"The situation of child domestic workers is usually thought by their parents to be safe since the girls live in better accommodation than at home, may be expected to eat better, and are under the care of the woman of the house … however, employment in private premises puts a young girl at considerable risk. She is at the mercy of the employer and other household members", explains Roselaers.

Consultations with child domestic workers reveal high levels of violence. In the Philippines and Peru, almost all child workers report that they have suffered maltreatment. In Fiji, eight out of 10 domestic workers reported that their employers sexually abuse them. Research in El Salvador found that two-thirds of girls in domestic service reported being beaten, insulted, denied food, fined for damages, or forced to remain out of doors.

An even more blatant example of violence against children is the sexual exploitation of children under 18, in child and adolescent pornography or sex shops. Although figures about children entering prostitution are only broad estimates, around one million children are thought to enter sexual exploitation every year. In South and East Asia, around one-third of those in sexual exploitation work are thought to be under 18.

The violence intrinsic to sexual exploitation is often compounded by exposure to additional physical or psychological violence. "According to an ILO/International Programme on the Elimination of Children Labour study in Viet Nam, 12 per cent of children in prostitution said they were subject to torture, beaten by customers or employers; also that they underwent repeated abortions, even having an abortion in the morning and receiving a customer in the afternoon. In Mongolia, 33 per cent of girls in prostitution indicated that they had been raped", says Roselaers.

The world's 5.7 million children in forced and bonded labour, including a significant proportion of victims of trafficking, are also at constant risk of violence. Though bonded labour survives elsewhere, much of the problem is concentrated in South Asia. Another risk group are children involved in trading drugs: they are often on the end of violent behaviour and exposed to risks of substance abuse and harm.

Children in unsafe working environments are also at risk. In 2004, more than 60 per cent of the world's 218 million working children were deemed to be in 'hazardous' work. This includes glass factories, mining, and plantation agriculture where health and safety regulations are often lax or non-existent, the report says.

"Violence committed against a single child is one instance of violence too many. If we acknowledge this, we can accelerate the present rate of reduction in child labour that has been achieved over the last four years, eliminating the worst forms of child labour by 2016 … and stop violence against children altogether!", concludes Roselaers.

For facts and figures on violence against children at work, click here.

Note 1 - For more information on the World Report on Violence Against Children, see