Child Labor Risks Growing In Africa. OAU and ILO Convene Tripartite Meeting

The growing army of child laborers in Africa is expected to swell by at least one million new children per year if current economic and social trends persist, the International Labour Office warned today in a report prepared for a tripartite meeting of workers, employers and governments in Kampala, Uganda. While citing widespread but scattered initiatives to reduce and eliminate child labor in certain industries, the report, Child Labor in Africa: Targeting the Intolerable says that the poverty, population and education indicators give a potentially bleak picture for the future of child labor in Africa.

The ILO estimates that the number of child laborers in Africa could surge from today’s 80 million to over 100 million by the year 2015, as a result of a demographic explosion of impoverished people and poor or inadequate levels of economic growth across much of the continent.

As part of a growing international effort to come to terms with the problem of child workers, the ILO has helped organise a conference jointly with the Organisation of African Unity in Kampala on February 5-7, which will bring together representatives from employer and worker organisations and governments of 22 African countries seeking to develop and implement national policies to reduce and eliminate child labor.

While child labor is found in all regions of the world, it is overwhelmingly a developing country phenomenon. In percentage terms, Africa already has the highest incidence of child labor, with approximately 41 per cent of all children between 5 and 14 years old involved in economic activity (versus 21 per cent in Asia and 17 per cent in Latin America). The ILO says that over 250 million children are at work world-wide in countries at all levels of economic development, with the largest concentration in Asia.

Participation rates of children in the labor force are higher in the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly half the children in the 10-14 age group are working. Estimates suggest that in Benin, 27 per cent of children work, in Burkina Faso 51 per cent and in Burundi 49 per cent. In Kenya, Ethiopia, Niger and Uganda the estimated rates are between 40 and 46 per cent. In Mali 54 per cent of children are estimated to be working. In Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Zimbabwe the figures are between 20 and 30 per cent (see Table).

The major factors responsible for the growth in child labor are rapid population growth, deterioration in living standards and the incapacity of education systems to cater to all children of school age and provide them with a decent education.

Among developing regions, Africa has the highest participation rate of girls: approximately 37 per cent of girls work in Africa, versus 20 per cent in Asia and 11 per cent in Latin America. The ILO says that although boys account for roughly three out of every five child laborers, the proportion of girls may well be higher; activities carried out in and around the household are generally under-reported.

Household work is reported to be the main reason for about one-third of the youngsters who do not attend school. They were either never enrolled or were obliged to drop out of school because of full time housework. If such full-time housework were taken into account, the number of girls could even exceed that of boys.

Primary schooling, another major indicator of child labor levels, shows that while a growing proportion of African children are now enrolled in school, the actual number of children in the primary school range (6-11) years who are not enrolled in school also grew by some 2 million from 1990 to 1995, to reach nearly 40 million, of whom two-thirds are girls.

The ILO says that despite a great deal of world attention which focuses on Third World children employed in predominantly export industries, such as textiles, clothing carpets and footwear, child labor is not so widespread in the export sectors, except in the plantations of certain countries.

Child labor is an overwhelmingly rural phenomenon, with as many of 70 per cent of all child laborers involved in agricultural production. Most African economies, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, remain predominately rural.

“If present trends continue,” says the ILO report, “at least a further 400,000 children per year in Sub-Saharan Africa aged 6-11 would remain out of school and would, in all likelihood, join the pool of child laborers.” To this number must be added the increasing number of children who try to combine work and school, bringing a total of at least one million new child workers on to the labor market for the next 10-15 years.

The ILO report acknowledges that while perceptions differ world-wide over what constitutes appropriate work, a distinction needs to be made “between normal family obligations and work which gives rise to exploitation and abuse.”

It warns that “an emphasis on traditional practices over the potential hazards of work for children can result in ignoring the extent of the child labor problem.” It underscores the importance “of societies and families becoming educated on the dangers of child work and recognising that what happens within the family context and training conditions cannot be excluded from the scope of legal instruments on child labor.”

Under international labor standards, work which subjects children to exploitation and abuse is prohibited, and evidence of such work is rampant world-wide and in Africa.

For example, domestic service, a frequent occupation of child laborers, is rich in potential for exploitation. Although little comprehensive information is available about the living and working conditions of domestics, due to the clandestine nature of the work, the report cites disquieting evidence of widespread physical, mental and sexual abuse of young females working in households other than their own. The consequences of long hours, emotional deprivation and servitude on young girl workers include “withdrawal and regression, premature ageing, depression and low self esteem.”

The tripartite meeting in Kampala, Uganda is designed to address these and other abuses of children, including such intolerable ones as work in dangerous occupations (for example mining and manufacturing), sexual exploitation in prostitution and pornography, debt bondage and trafficking in children. It is part of a series of events (including conferences in Amsterdam, Oslo and Bangkok) aimed at generating international action against child labor, including support for proposed new international labor standards on extreme forms of child labor (in the form of a Convention and Recommendation), which will be discussed at the 1998 International Labor Conference in Geneva in June.

Since the early 1990s a considerable number of countries have adopted comprehensive national policies and programmes on child labor and African countries have been particularly active participants in the debate. Several African countries (Benin, Egypt, Kenya, Senegal and Tanzania) were among the early participants in IPEC, the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labor, a major technical cooperation programme begun by the ILO in 1992.

Nine other African countries are currently preparing to join IPEC: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe). Several other countries, among them Cameroon and Zimbabwe, are in the process of developing country-specific strategies to combat child labor.

The ILO report insists that in light of the magnitude of the child labor problem, concrete steps are more and more urgent. The scope and nature of the hazards facing working children in Africa remains poorly documented and further attention needs to be focused on areas requiring immediate action. Further preventive action is needed if the serious social consequences of the projected increase in the numbers of child workers are to be avoided.

Category: Press Release