Young boys work in a plantation in Sri Lanka. There are more child workers in Asia than in any other region in the world. Photo by: International Labor Organization / CC BY-NC-ND

Asia is the region considered as the fastest growing economy in the world, but millions of its workers are children. There are more child workers here than in any other region in the world. In fact, half of the world’s child workers are in Asia and the Pacific, according to the International Labor Organization. These are children still waiting for their most basic of rights to be granted.

Although the region has made meaningful efforts and improved legal frameworks, particularly related to trafficking in persons and the establishment of new tracking systems to enhance enforcement, there still is much to be done.

There continue to be 78 million child laborers in Asia-Pacific, equivalent to almost 10 percent of all children in the region. Asia-Pacific also owns the sad global record of having the highest number of trafficking victims involved in commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor and other worst forms of child labor.

Estimates based on national household surveys capture children involved in hazardous work, but many are unaccounted for because of the illegal and often inaccessible trades they’re involved in. Many are secluded in hazardous household work, debt bondage, the sexual trade, compulsory labor or other forms of slavery that fail to be recorded. What’s more, studies that count child laborers are often based on small surveys or rapid assessments, failing to paint a full picture. For this reason, the real number of child workers in the region must be much higher.

What we do know, however, is that more than 1.5 million children are working under conditions of forced labor to produce bricks, carpets, embellished textiles and quarry stones in India and Nepal. In Bangladesh, about 24 percent of children working in the dried fish industry are working under conditions of force. In China, there have been reports of children making electronics and toys. In India, Vietnam and Thailand, young hands sew garments together. In Myanmar, children are involved in the rubber, teak, bamboo and sugar industry. In Thailand, children work in rice mills and the shrimp industry.

The list goes on and on.

Still, all child workers have something in common. They have no freedom. They work for low or no wages. They work under the threat of violence. They are foregoing their education and their childhood.

What’s more, these children share something else: they are from a socially disadvantaged or socially excluded background. Some children inherit their parents’ debt and may be bought and sold between contractors. Some children come from lower castes (in the cases of India, Bangladesh and Nepal) and are involved in a poverty cycle where families receive an advance payment and become bonded for generations to pay off debt. Other children are members of indigenous groups or from ethnic or religious minorities and are routinely discriminated against.

And worse, even the most updated laws are failing to adequately protect children. In India, the recent set of amendments to the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 enables children to work in family enterprises and in the audio-visual entertainment industry. The amendments — made last month — potentially open loopholes that will sustain or even encourage more child labor. The term “family enterprises” can trap children who make carpets or polish gems as these industries often take place in family homes. In other instances, the law can further increase domestic labor duties for girls.

Address the root cause

What laws are not addressing is the root cause. Poverty, the lack of decent work for adults, the lack of social protection and a failure to ensure that all children are attending school from the legal minimum age are the reasons why child labor persists in this region. Governments would be better served to address these problems, which would further diminish child labor.

The global community is urging all countries to take action. The proposal for the sustainable development goals post-2015 would take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor and eradicate forced labor. By 2025, the new goals aim to end child labor in all its forms, including recruitment and the use of child soldiers. The goals also aim to eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in both the public and private spheres. Countries would be expected to make significant progress on stopping human trafficking, ending sexual exploitation of children and preventing all forms of violence and torture against children. It is a challenge to imagine this reality in South Asia 10 years from now, unless social inequalities are addressed.

Since 2002, the world has united together on June 12 to call for child labor to be eradicated, especially in the worst forms. This year, the focus is on the importance of quality education as a key step in tackling the issue. As such, we at World Vision are urging the region’s leaders to take action.

Governments should ensure they have effective and implementable laws that have legal protections related to the minimum age of workers. Laws should prevent children from being involved in hazardous work and ensure effective child labor inspections. There should be intragovernment coordination, particularly to address trafficking. There should be free, compulsory and quality education for all children to the minimum age for admission to employment. Action needs to be taken to reach those presently involved in child labor and there should be policies that ensure sufficient investments in the teaching profession.

Specifically to these countries in Asia and the Pacific, we will call for:

● Nepal to create a revised list of hazardous occupations prohibited to children.
● Papua New Guinea to adopt a list of hazardous work prohibited by children.
● Nepal, Bangladesh and India to enhance data collection to include disaggregated data on trafficking in persons cases to identify the number of child trafficking victims and to pursue the perpetrators of child trafficking violations in all the region.
● India to provide special protection of children involved in child labor in the agriculture and in the manufacturing sectors.

Ending child labor

Yes, I believe a holistic approach can adequately address the root causes of child labor, including social protection and poverty alleviation policies. Having a coordinated and comprehensive child protection system with response mechanisms is also part of the solution. But the ratification of international conventions, the installation of laws or policies and specific strategies to reach vulnerable families and children at the state level will not be enough if society remains permissive on child labor.

To be a guide in the process of ending child labor, there are many things that can be done.

Civil society and media can change attitudes that condone child labor. More awareness can be raised about the harmful developmental effects of child labor on children’s physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual growth.

Shoppers and consumers can be smart. They can demand products that do not use child labor in any part of their supply chain. Some of the other top offenders in Asia-Pacific include manufacturers or dealers of carpets, bricks, rice-embellished textiles, stones, dried fish, shrimp, rubber, bamboo and sugarcane. Look for options that assure consumers that the products were not made in slavelike conditions. By demanding these products, we can be smarter consumers who can stop the child labor in the worst forms.

Families and religious communities can put in place protective practices that lead to the eradication of the hazardous practices and gender-based violence. They can challenge social norms, stereotypes and prejudices that silently condone child labor.

Each of us can do something to alleviate the suffering of millions of children.

What do you plan to do?

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About the author

  • Gabriela Olguin

    Gabriela Olguin is the child protection regional adviser for South Asia and Pacific at World Vision International in Manila, Philippines. She is a lawyer, international development and international human rights specialist with over 18 years of experience. Previously, she has served the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the International Labor Office, developing advocacy strategies and programs for rights enforcement and alleviation of social exclusion, and against discrimination, inequality and gender-based violence.