How to prevent children from working
FEW SIGHTS are more pitiful than a three-year-old, hammer in hand, smashing large pebbles into smaller ones to sell for pennies. Such scenes are considered so odious in rich countries as well as in poor countries that the Convention of the International Labor Organization (ILO) which prohibits “the worst forms of child labor” (including soldiers, slavery and prostitution) last year became the first to be ratified by all of its 187 members.
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Between 2000 and 2016, the number of children working in factories, farms and mines fell by nearly 94 million to 152 million. Yet in the four years to 2020, progress has been reversed, with 8 million more children working and around 6.5 million more in hazardous work. Sub-Saharan Africa is responsible for all of the increase. The setback happened before the covid-19 pandemic, but the ILO and Unicef, the UN the children’s agency estimates that the economic blow from the virus could push nearly 9 million more children into work by the end of next year. Many will not return to school after temporary closures imposed in countries to curb transmission of the virus (see Middle East and Africa section).
This increase in poverty has prompted calls for stricter enforcement of child labor laws. Brazilian prosecutors are suing Olam, a raw materials company, over allegations it has marketed cocoa harvested by children (he denies this claim). In Côte d’Ivoire, judges have jailed dozens of people in recent months for making children work on cocoa plantations. And in Liberia, the government has said it is investigating parents of children sent to labor and plans to prosecute child labor cases.
Rich countries, for their part, use their purchasing power to prevent child labor. In 2019, the United States halted tobacco imports from Malawi because part of the crop was cared for by children. The same year, she reflected on the ban on cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire and the chocolate made from it, for the same reason. This momentum is natural: who wouldn’t want to take strong action to end cruelty to children? Yet strict countermeasures, in many cases, can do more harm than good.
Take the rigorous enforcement of child labor laws in poor countries. Although there are many child traffickers who deserve to be put behind bars, most working children are not enslaved and transported by strangers, but work alongside family members in small farms or tiny fishing boats. In 2017, for example, Ghanaian police, encouraged by Western charities, raided remote villages in Lake Volta, claiming to have saved 144 children from slavery. Yet an investigation found that all but four had been torn from their families. Well-intentioned measures by rich countries to ban the import of contaminated cocoa or tobacco can exacerbate poverty which is the main reason parents keep children at home to help out on the farm.
Instead of focusing on symptoms, governments should help poor people get rich enough that they don’t have to put their children to work to feed them. In the longer term, this means adopting policies that will help the economies of poor countries to grow. But it will take time, a time during which an estimated 160 million children will continue to miss the chance to learn and play.
Fortunately, a lot can be done now. Programs in which parents receive modest sums to keep their children in school have been shown to be effective in reducing child labor. A comprehensive review by the World Bank, which reviewed 30 studies, found clear evidence that these tend to reduce child labor, with the largest reductions among the poorest beneficiaries.
Cash-strapped African countries may complain that they cannot afford such handouts, and that borrowing or taxing to pay for them would hold back economic growth and job creation. Yet these diets are relatively inexpensive. Brazil’s flagship program against poverty, Bolsa Família, costs just 0.4% of GDP, a sum that even the poorest countries could finance in several ways. One could be to reduce fuel subsidies that mainly benefit the wealthiest people and which, in half of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa, cost more than 1% of the economy. GDP. Bilateral donors, who currently channel less than 1% of their aid into social safety nets, could also play an important role. Few public policy issues are as universally acclaimed as the drive to end child labor. But success will require pragmatism, not dogmatism. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “How to keep children from working”