In the first promising news concerning working children, a new International Labor Organization (ILO) report claims that child labor has decreased globally by 11 per cent between 2000 and 2004 - the actual numbers falling from 246 million to 218 million children. It also asserts that if the current pace of decline is maintained, and the global momentum to stop child labor continues, child labor could feasibly be eliminated, in most of its worst forms, in 10 years.
More significantly, the number of children and youth aged 5-17 trapped in hazardous work decreased by 26 per cent, to reach 126 million in 2004 as opposed to 171 million in the previous estimate compiled by ILO in 2000. Among younger child workers aged 5-14, this drop was even more dramatic at 33 per cent, states the report entitled 'The End of Child Labor: Within reach' released globally on May 4, 2006.
Latin America and the Caribbean have made the greatest progress with the number of working children falling by two-thirds and only five per cent of children now engaged in work. In Brazil - showcased as an example to illustrate how countries can move forward in tackling child labor - activity rates among the 5-9 age group in that country fell by 61 per cent from 1992 to 2004 and among the 10-17 age group by 36 per cent. Mexico too registered a significant decline. As half of the children in Latin America live in these two countries, the reductions testify to the fact that the overall decline is a real trend.
Asia and the Pacific also registered a significant decline in the number of economically active children, it says. However, as the child population also declined, the percentage of working children was less reduced. The ILO estimates that the region still has the largest number of child workers in the 5-14 age group - some 122 million.
ILO, though, is optimistic. "The end of child labor is within our reach", asserts ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. "Though the fight against child labor remains a daunting challenge, we are on the right track. We can end its worst forms in a decade, while not losing sight of the ultimate goal of ending all child labor," he adds.
The report, however, is not without its detractors. In India, home to the maximum number of child laborers worldwide (12.6 million, according to the 2001 census), there is mixed response. Leading child rights activist Shantha Sinha feels that insistence on focusing on the worst forms of child labor first would only give legitimacy for governments to ignore the majority of children who are out of schools and engaged in some form of work or the other.
"This would, in turn, render a majority of child labor invisible and hidden," she observes. "In fact, such a vast army of child labor that is left untouched would result in the persistence of child labor, even in the hazardous sector." She adds, "It is only when the rights of all children to be away from work and at school becomes a public issue that children in armed conflict, sex work and in illicit activities will find a congenial environment that would accept them back into the fore of the society."
Dr Helen Sekar of the V V Giri National Labor Institute (NLI), an autonomous body under the Indian government's Ministry of Labor is also cautious about the promising picture painted by the ILO report. Statistics showing decline in child labor can be tricky and simplistic, given the complex nature of the problem in India, where a large number of working children are hidden in the unorganized sector, she says.
At the same time, she underlines the fact that the government has, in its clearest policy yet to abolish child labor, strengthened its National Child Labor Projects (NCLP). It has so far launched 150 NCLPs across the country to provide educational and other rehabilitation services to children withdrawn from hazardous industries. During the Tenth Five-Year Plan period (2002-07), the government has allocated Rs 6,020 million (US$1=Rs 44.8) to cover 250 districts out of a total of 601 districts under this programme. So far, 190 districts have been covered. The other 60 will be covered later this year.
"Every child, whether a resident or a migrant, will be traced under a very systematic monitoring system in all these districts to ensure that all children aged between 8 and 14 are enrolled in special schools of the NCLPs," Sekar informs.
In February 2004, the INDUS project was launched. This was designed as a complementary effort to both NCLP and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA; Education for All) with 50-50 funding from the Government of India and the US Department of Labor. The 21 districts where INDUS has been launched on an experimental basis is separate from the 250 districts that the NCLP covers. To ensure that these districts become child labor-free, the programme will target mothers of working children for inclusion in micro-credit schemes and self-help groups, while the youth of poor families will be given specialized training in Industrial Training Institutes (which are run by state governments and private institutions), she adds.
While Sekar agrees that this initiative will help towards the decline of child labor in India, she says that, for its absolute abolition, the SSA programme must be implemented in all districts of the country.
Echoing this view, Sinha says it is the responsibility of the ILO to act as a conscience keeper and provider of vision, and to categorically state that every child must be in school in order to abolish child labor in all its forms. Commending the report for recognizing the link between child labor elimination and education for all, Sinha stresses that this - alongwith ILO's Minimum Age Convention, 1973 - must become the basis for laying out plans of action in a systematic manner.
The report has called upon all member states of International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labor to adopt time-bound plans to eliminate the worst forms of child labor by 2008. It also highlights important challenges, particularly in agriculture, where seven out of 10 child laborers work. Other challenges include addressing the impact of HIV/AIDS on child labor and building stronger links between child labor and youth employment concerns.