November 20 is Universal Children’s Day, a day devoted to observing the welfare of the world’s children. Unfortunately, in the U.S and elsewhere, children are still denied fundamental human rights. Children worldwide suffer from corporal punishment in homes and schools, are denied access to schooling, are forced to join violent militias, and a endure a host of other atrocities that clearly violate the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and other international human rights treaties. One issue that has received attention in the past few months is that of child labor.
According to the International Labor Office, there are about 168 million child laborers globally, which accounts for approximately one in 10 of the world’s children. Albeit a one-third reduction since 2000, the problem remains acute. An estimated 13 million children work in India alone, despite laws prohibiting child labor and mandating school attendance. About four percent of child laborers are in forced or bonded labor, prostitution, or fighting in armed conflict. The remainder of the world’s child laborers work in family businesses or on family farms, where they often toil as much as 27 hours per week and are, like the child tobacco laborers, exposed to a variety of dangerous chemicals and pesticides.
In a report from May 2014, Human Rights Watch found that child laborers in the US were routinely exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, extreme heat, and other dangers. Interviews with these children found widespread reports of headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting whole working, which is suggestive of acute nicotine poisoning. In the US, there is no minimum age for children to work on small farms, and children as young as 12 can work on tobacco farms with no regulations to protect them from the hazards of the work.
Thankfully, there does seem to be some movement on these issues. Kailash Satyarthi, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prizes (with Malala Yousefzi), founded the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, which has raided factories across India, freeing more than 40,000 bonded laborers. Many of the workers were children who lived under armed guard.
On October 14, 2014, labor ministers and representatives of 25 Latin American and Caribbean countries signed a declaration launching an initiative to rid the region of child labor. And, while I have never been a smoker and am not a fan of the tobacco industry. I want to applaud tobacco giant Philip Morris International, however, for its initiative to reduce the harmful exploitation of child laborers in the US On November 5, 2014, Philip Morris International announced that it will begin buying US-grown tobacco only through third-party leaf supply companies. Previously, the company purchased tobacco directly from tobacco farmers. According to Human Rights Watch, of the world’s 10 largest tobacco companies, Philip Morris International has the most rigorous standards related to child labor. It prohibits children under the age of 18 from many of the most hazardous tasks on tobacco farms. According to researchers at Human Rights Watch (HRW), this decision will now mean that thousands of tobacco farms will now have to meet much higher child labor standards.
Still more can and should be done. In the US, we should move to ratify the CRC. Only the US and Somalia have not done so. While ratification of a human rights treaty by no means ensures that all human rights violations will cease, if nothing else it is a powerful symbol that the rights of children are important and it can be a much-needed prompt to address some of our inadequate protections for children.
Globally, one of the obvious primary reasons that children work is because their families need the income. As Charles Kenny wrote recently in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, passing laws alone sometimes makes the situation worse. Economists Prashant Bharadwaj and Leah Lakdawala studied the impact of India’s 1986 child labor law and found that it drove wages for children down and the number of hours they worked up, with the biggest impact felt in poor families. Instead, we must support the education of children and help cover the costs of schooling for families who cannot afford it. Some countries have begun paying families to keep their kids in school. Mexico’s Opportunidades program gives mothers two-thirds of what their daughters would earn in the labor force if they keep the girls in school through the ninth grade, which has reduced that country’s child labor rates by as much as a quarter. Other efforts include covering some of the expenses associated with schooling in the developing world, like school meals and uniforms.
As Whitney Houston sang, “the children are our future. We must teach them well and let them lead the way.”