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|Child labor on decline globally
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||05 May 2006
||Child labor on decline globally
Improvements since 2000, agency reports
By Stephen Franklin
Tribune staff reporter
Published May 5, 2006
Not so long ago, thousands of Pakistani children spent their days hunched over, hand-stitching high-priced leather soccer balls that were sold globally.
They earned pennies per hour and faced the risk of injuries.
But then child labor advocates and consumer groups took up the cause, enlisting soccer ball manufacturers, sports industry groups, trade unions, human rights groups, officials from Pakistan and other countries.
Today, the Pakistani soccer ball workshops are largely child-free, the International Labor Organization said Thursday as it offered an upbeat update on the progress in fighting the abuses of global child labor.
"There's been a big difference, but we still haven't gone far enough," said Lee Swepston, a human rights official for the 87-year-old Geneva-based organization.
Child labor, like sweatshops, is an issue that has caught on with consumers and forced global companies to take notice.
The ILO's report predicted that the worst forms of child labor could be wiped away in 10 years if the current progress continues.
Unlike a pessimistic report four years ago, the ILO pinpointed an increase in cooperation and awareness of child labor as making a substantive difference in the lives of children.
The number of laborers under 18 across the globe dropped 11 percent between 2000 to 2004, to 217.7 million from 245.5 million, the agency said.
And the number of youths from 5 to 17 years old trapped in hazardous jobs declined 26 percent to 126.3 million in 2004, according to the ILO.
The greatest declines took place in Latin America and the Caribbean, led by Brazil and Mexico, where the number of child laborers plummeted 66 percent.
A booming economy in many countries has been a powerful tool in driving children out of the workforce, the report said. But the commitment of governments and businesses to protect child workers was key, the report added.
In contrast, sub-Saharan Africa had the highest rate of child laborers--more than one in four youngsters 5 to 14 years old, according to the ILO.
The prevalence of HIV/AIDS, wars and family upheaval helped limit the continent's ability to protect its children, the ILO said. "Many parents are dying, forcing their children into the streets," Swepston said.
A staggering number of youths are still victims of abuse, as outlined by the report:
- Over 1 million children annually are forced into prostitution, trafficked and sold for sex or child pornography.
- More than 300,000 children have been drafted into rebel armies, which often leads them into forced labor or sexual slavery for the fighters.
- There are nearly 5.8 million children in some form of forced or bonded labor, working in homes, farms and factories as virtual slaves.
The report also cites a growing number of children used in the production and sale of drugs. It also said it is not clear whether globalization creates child labor.
"The report makes no bones about the difficult challenges that lie ahead, especially in agriculture, where seven out of 10 child laborers work," U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said in a prepared statement.
Harkin, who has pushed for U.S. legislation on the issue and helped broker an agreement with the cocoa industry to reduce its use of child laborers, pointed to the "real progress" made so far with cocoa growers.
Diane Mull, director of the Washington-based International Initiative to End Child Labor, said it is much easier to go after child trafficking and prostitution than to try to end a poor country's reliance on children working on farms. Moreover, such work prevents children from receiving an education.
Alison Boak of the International Organization for Adolescents, a New York-based advocacy group that focuses on youth trafficking, said child trafficking remains a problem in Eastern Europe.
After a major push in the 1990s, much of the funding and the work halted, she claimed. "People pulled out too early. They left before there was systematic change," Boak said.
Swepston offered the case of the soccer ball industry in Sialkot, Pakistan, as an example of long-term attention that paid off. A campaign waged by educators and child labor advocates like Save the Children, and helped by world famous athletes, publicized the issue.
One of those educators was Bill Bigelow, who was teaching global studies a decade ago at a Portland, Oregon, high school. After discovering that his high school's soccer balls came from Pakistan, he focused on the issue in his classroom.
"I wanted the students to see the humanity that is embedded in everything they touch," recalled Bigelow, who later co-authored a book on globalization aimed at teachers and students. "And I asked them to reconsider the soccer ball."
With help from the ILO and the government of Pakistan, the children were re-directed away from workshops to schools and to receiving health care for their work-related problems, according to the ILO report.
Now Swepston says the child workshops have gone underground. "We are finding that is popping up again, out of sight," he said.
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