Stolen lives

28th May 2004 at 01:00
June 12 is World Day Against Child Labour. Jerome Monahan describes how millions of children around the globe are forced into work that robs them of their basic human rights

In 1794 William Blake used his visionary poem "London" to describe some of the social ills he witnessed around him. The plight of the capital's working young were of particular concern and stood as a blot on the country's institutions: "How the chimney-sweeper's cryEvery blackening church appals ...". During the 19th century, London and other British cities mushroomed in size absorbing huge numbers of the rural poor into their burgeoning tenements and factories. Conditions for vast numbers of children forced into work by family circumstances or the need for self-preservation became even more grim.

In 1861, journalist Henry Mayhew famously published details of his encounter with an 11-year-old mudlark: "I generally rise in the morning at six o'clock, and go down to the river-side with my youngest brother," said the boy. "When the tide is out we pick up pieces of coal, iron, copper, rope and canvas ... The old men do not make as much as the boys because they are not so active. Some of the mudlarks are orphan boys and have no home."

The boy was among dozens of characters whose personal testimonies Henry Mayhew included in his book London Labour and the London Poor. Today, it is staggering to imagine such scenes in London or anywhere in Britain. But, sadly, it only takes a flight to a developing country to find millions of children exposed to dangers and exploitation every bit as pernicious as those condemned by 19th-century reformers, novelists and factory inspectors.

Overwhelming statistics

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2000 an estimated 352 million children aged between five and 17 were "economically active" in the world. Of these, 106 million were involved in types of work "acceptable for children", such as working a few hours a week to help out in a family business and gaining valuable experience and self-worth in the process.

Then there were the 246 million in the same age bracket deemed to be involved in "child labour". "In this category fall one in six of the planet's children," explains Jonathan Blagbrough of Anti-Slavery International, the first organisation of its kind in the world to be non-governmental.

"These are youngsters working below the minimum employable age andor carrying out tasks that are hazardous."

Within this population are the 179 million children deemed to be involved in the "worst forms of child labour". Here the figures are divided between the 111 million children aged under 15 that should not be working at all, the 59 million teenagers between 15 and 17 whose working conditions are in need of urgent improvement and, most abject of all, the 8.4 million exposed to the worst forms of exploitation.

In this last group are those in bonded labour because of family debt, forced to fight as soldiers, or trafficked for a variety of purposes, including prostitution. As well as working long hours for little if any pay, many of these children are subjected to psychological, verbal, physical and sexual abuse.

They are also often deprived of opportunities for play and socialisation with their peers and, because of loss of educational opportunities, find themselves locked into a cycle of poverty that condemns them, and their children in turn, to lives burdened by further exploitation and hazard.

Although, from time to time, a scandal breaks over the head of a multinational corporation found to be implicated in the use of child labour, it is a myth that most young workers are engaged in work concerned with export commodities. Only 5 per cent of child labourers, say the ILO, contribute to the formal economy in this way. More than 70 per cent are working in primary sectors, such as agriculture, fishing, hunting and forestry; in retail trades, such as restaurants and hotels, or as household workers.

According to Unicef, in 2002, in the Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan, 30,000 girls were employed as maids in middle-class areas. Many were working 70 hours a week for an average of n14 a month - well below the country's legal minimum wage. It is a story repeated in most developing nations.

"Domestic service is estimated to be the single largest employment category of girls under 16 in the world," says Jonathan Blagbrough. "We are talking millions of children: one million in the Phillipines; 200,000 in Haiti and 300,000 in Colombia. In Venezuela 60 per cent of all working girls between the ages of 10 and 14 are domestic workers."

Poverty and the world's injustices

The root cause of these millions of blighted lives is poverty. According to the World Bank around 1.2 billion people subsist on incomes of less than one US dollar a day. That their children work and can supplement this meagre income is often all that keeps families from starvation.

The children of developing nations are on the receiving end of the world's injustices. Their lives are diverted into labour by world economic imbalances that result in their country's educational programmes and other social policies being sacrificed to pay debt, or their families becoming impoverished by the plunging international prices of commodities such as cocoa or coffee.

Then there are even more ingrained injustices, such as those faced by the Mayan people of Guatemala who have been on the receiving end of discrimination from the European elite since the invasion of the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th-century. Today most Mayans are still experiencing abject poverty which, according to the UK charity War on Want, forces two in five of their children into work and drives more than 250,000 Mayan girls into the capital seeking employment as domestic servants, factory workers or street sellers.

Victims of circumstance

War and disease are also responsible for the scale of child labour in the world. In particular, the HIVAids crisis in sub-Saharan Africa has brought a terrible toll on the age group most likely to leave dependant children behind them. "Another contributory factor is the idea that a child's working is 'normal' and poor families are particularly vulnerable to enduring myths that in providing a youngster for domestic work in a richer family they and possibly the whole family are gaining access to new opportunities," says Jonathan Blagbrough.

There are plenty of un-scrupulous intermediaries and traffickers who are happy to capitalise on such beliefs, offering the prospect of lucrative employment to justify the handing over of a child. According to the United Nations, as many as 1.2 million children are trafficked every year. It's a particularly pervasive problem in many countries in West Africa. In some areas of Togo, says the charity Plan International, up to 80 per cent of children "have fallen prey to trafficking networks taking them out to neighbouring countries, Arabia and Europe".

Grass roots action

What is the cure? It is not as if the world's young are without plenty of legal structures designed to prevent them being forced into labour. As well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child obliges governments to protect those under 18 from economic exploitation, performing hazardous work or losing out on their education.

To these can be added the ILO's conventions on child labour, number 138, passed in 1998 forbidding the employment of any child below the age of 15, and Convention Number 182 banning 18-year-olds from harmful or dangerous work, including prostitution and mining.

The fact is that while nations might sign up to these international agreements, without action on the ground they remain lofty but otherwise abstract ideals. It is for this reason that the most effective interventions occur at grass-roots level, tackling the family poverty that pushes children into work in the first place or helping to provide children with the chances for education, sometimes in parallel to their working lives.

It is, of course, desirable that young children should not work, but it is increasingly being recognised that children are often making an invaluable contribution to their family budgets and that the loss of their existing jobs can force them into even more dangerous and exploitative work. It is also the case that without careful rehabilitation many children "rescued" from forms of exploitative labour find it almost impossible to adjust back into family life. This is a particularly acute problem for girls who have been forced into prostitution, which is a source of shame to them and their families.

Breaking the shackles

The news at the time of the 1994 World Cup that children in Sialkot, Pakistan, were involved in stitching footballs for export proved a major scandal and led to calls for a blanket ban on the practice. In the end a joint agreement was forged between the region's chamber of commerce, the ILO and Unicef, creating the means to eliminate child labour in the football-stitching industry. Families were given access to manageable credit, enabling them to set up small businesses, which safeguarded them against the poverty that forced their children into work in the first place. While children still work in the industry, few do so full-time and, therefore, have the time to attend school.

In Guatemala City the organisation Conrado de la Cruz (supported in part by funds from War on Want) works with 700 marginalised women and girls, helping them set up and run youth groups that provide support and education. One beneficiary has been 10-year-old Ana Gabriela who, thanks to Conrado, attends Sunday school where she receives two hours of lessons from other Mayan girls. She has learned to read and is passing on her knowledge to others as an "education promoter".

"Primarily, it is education that can lift these young people out of domestic service," says Guillermo Rogel of War on Want. "But it runs deeper than that. With Conrado de la Cruz we aim to help young people organise themselves, ultimately to break the shackles of domestic slavery entirely."

The Dr Reddy's Research Foundation in Hyderabad, India, has received funds from Sport Relief, filtered through the charity Care International. It seeks to reform the lives of child-workers by encouraging street policemen to protect child workers who are on their beat, encouraging them to attend "bridging schools" run by the foundation, where they can catch up on missed school time.

"The local constables are the ones with the knowledge of where the workshops are in which children are employed," explains the foundation's director Nalini Gangadharan. "We also work closely with parents, encouraging those that may feel education is an expendable luxury in hard times to reconsider their decisions, and to consider the extra earning power their children might be able to command with qualifications behind them."

Back in Britain ...

This story began with the suggestion that it was only in the past where we could expect to find child-labour exploitation in Britain. Unfortunately, this is far from the case. In a report last year, Unicef suggested that thousands of children are probably being trafficked into the UK, either as their final destination or in transit to somewhere else in Europe.

The fate of Victoria Climbie was a stark warning of the sorts of abuses that happen when West African parents entrust their children to members of their extended families living in the UK in the hope that it will bring them a better future.

Another horror, the discovery in 2002 of the dismembered corpse of "Adam" in the Thames, raised fears that a small number of such children may also be at risk of ritual killing. Unicef's Stop the Traffic! report highlighted that while the Sexual Offences Bill, then passing through Parliament, outlawed transporting children to the UK for sexual exploitation, it didn't lay down penalties for trafficking children for other occupations. These might include domestic service, drug-running and sweatshop labour. Nor did it offer central funding for the creation of specialist safe houses for children detected entering the UK before they could be spirited away by the traffickers awaiting their arrival.

It is also telling that a set of educational resources produced this year by Save the Children, concerning child labour, took as one of its case studies 12-year-old Steven, who was forced into a role far beyond his years, supporting his mother in the care of his sister, who has epilepsy.

"Far from being angels, as they are often sentimentally described in newspapers, such children are often greatly disadvantaged by this extra responsibility," says Emily Holzhausen of the charity Carers UK.

In Steven's case his friendships and education suffered because of pressure he was facing at home and in this respect he was on a par with those millions of children worldwide forced into premature adulthood by the burden of undeserved and unreasonable labours laid on them.

Getting involved

* Find out about fair trade products at

* Take part in Sport Relief '04 on July 10. Some proceeds go towards its child labour charity schemes.

Labour laws affecting young people in the UK

There's a bewildering array of local by-laws affecting young people wishing to work. These are the key rules:

* A child is a person of "compulsory school age". This applies until the last Friday in June in the school year in which they reach their sixteenth birthday.

* Children are protected by law even if they are not paid for their work.

* Children may not be employed in an industrial undertaking, any work three metres above ground, in a slaughterhouse or butcher's shop, delivering fuel or milk, or selling door-to-door.

* Children aged 13 (if allowed by local by-laws) and 14 can't work more than two hours a day outside school hours, or five hours a day in holiday periods.

* There's no minimum wage for those under 18. Between 18 and 22 the minimum wage is pound;3.80.

The West Midlands Employment and Low Pay Unit's The Child Employment Guide (pound;3.20) is available by sending a self-addressed envelope to 3rd Floor Wolverley House, 18 Digbeth, Birmingham B5 6BJ

Case studies

From Anti-Slavery International

Rosie, aged 14 (Phillipines), has to do all the housework and take care of 14 dogs. "The dogs are so big! I'm afraid to go near them. Every day I prepare kilos of dog food, wash out the pens and take care of the mother dogs with newly born puppies.

ometimes I can't sleep properly for three nights or the puppies may die.

My employer doesn't allow me to have any leftover food from their table and I can't just help myself. I am always hungry! One day, I ate the food of the dogs'."

Diraj, aged 12 (India), can't remember the name of his village or where it is. He doesn't know which caste he belongs to and he doesn't know his family name. His name, Diraj KC, was given to him by his employer. His body is covered in scars from being beaten with a hot iron. He was made to stand outside all night in the winter as a punishment, and was chained in a way that prevented him from sitting for long periods. His employer also injected his lips with local anaesthetic as punishment and dosed him with sleeping pills.


* Anti-Slavery www.antislavery.orghomepageantislaverychildlabour.htm

* End Childhood Exploitation (Unicef) =

* GAP's Social Responsibility Report = http:

* Global March = http:globalmarch.orgworstformsreport

* GMB Union =

* The Home Office's child trafficking legal review =

* History of Childhood Labour =

* International Labour Organisation = www.ilo.orgpublicenglishstandardsipecthemeshazardindex.htm

* No More Sweatshops!


* Plan International www.plan-international.orgactionissues

* Save the Children's key stage 3 education pack Working Children Worldwide =;group=reso urcesamp;section=publicationamp;subsection=details

* Sport Relief = www.sportrelief.commoney-goes-worldmap.html

* Unicef =

* War on Want =

* Worksmart =

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