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Child Labor Exploding In Ex-Soviet States

by Ramesh Jaura

to sweatshop coverage

(IPS) BERLIN -- The problem of child labor in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is rapidly growing, a senior International Labor Organization official says.

"Contributing factors include the vulnerability of many families in the wake of the transition to market economies and in the aftermath of armed conflicts and political crises that have affected several countries in the region," Klaus Guenther, in charge of the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) told IPS here.

Those countries include Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

"Almost 1.2 million children are deprived of parental care -- about half of them growing up in institutions, isolated from family and community, and at risk of abuse," Guenther said.

IPEC was launched by the Geneva-based International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1992 with the aim of eliminating child labor and strengthening the capacity of countries to deal with the problem.

"We are working to eliminate child labor in Eastern Europe and Central Asia on the basis of the grave situation as it is developing because we do not yet have any precise figures for the region as we have for Asia-Pacific, Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean," Guether said in an interview with IPS.

Guenther presented the global report "The End of Child Labor -- Within Reach" to media representatives Thursday at ILO's Berlin office.

The report indicates that the number of child laborers around the world has fallen by 11 percent over the last four years -- or 28 million fewer than in 2002.

"The sharpest decrease is in the area of hazardous work by children -- where there has been a 26 percent reduction overall, and 33 percent fewer children between the ages of five and 14 endangering their lives in hazardous work," the report says.

"Though an overwhelming majority of the world's 218 million youngsters trapped in child labor live in developing lands, the problem is rapidly growing in Eastern Europe and Central Asia," Guenther told IPS.

A common face of child labor is street children and children engaged in hazardous agricultural work, Guenther said.

"However, other worse forms of child labor also exist, as in the case of children from rural areas who are trafficked to urban centers or wealthier countries for labor exploitation, including commercial and sexual exploitation."

Guether said about 5 million children have benefited from IPEC's work. "This might appear to be a small number, but considering the complexity of issues involved, it is bigger than it appears.

"IPEC's work on child labor is an important facet of the ILO's Decent Work Agenda because child labor perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty by preventing children from acquiring the skills and education they need for a better future," he said.

"The consequences of child labor go well beyond childhood: they also affect national economies through losses in competitiveness, productivity and potential income."

Against this backdrop, withdrawing children from child labor, providing them with education, and assisting their families with training and employment opportunities contributes to concrete reductions in "the decent work deficit," Guenther said.

IPEC's experience shows that to be effective, poverty alleviation programs must address child labor issues through prevention, withdrawal, and the strengthening of national capacity, especially in the education system, according to the report.

While the goal of IPEC remains the prevention and elimination of all forms of child labor, the priority targets for IPEC's action are the worst forms of child labor, which are defined in the ILO Convention as: -- All forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children. -- Debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labor, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict. -- The use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances. -- The use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties. -- Work that by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.

Guenther and his colleagues are not citing moral reasons alone in urging governments to reinforce their political commitment to eliminate the worst forms of child labor by the year 2012. "We have a strong economic argument too," he said.

An ILO study says the benefits of eliminating child labor will be nearly seven times greater than the costs, or an estimated $5.1 trillion (a trillion is a thousand billion) in the developing and transitional economies, where most child laborers are found.

"What is more, the study conducted by IPEC says that child labor -- which involves one in every six children in the world -- can be eliminated and replaced by universal education by the year 2020 at an estimated total cost of $760 billion," Guenther said.

He noted that Latin America and the Caribbean stand out for a rapid decline in child labor. The number of children at work in the region has fallen by two-thirds over the last four years, with just 5 percent of children aged 5-14 now engaged in work.

But 26 percent of children in sub-Saharan Africa are engaged in economic activities, or close to 50 million child workers, the group says. That's the proportion in the world.

"The reasons," Guenther said, "are high rates of population growth and HIV/AIDS infection that under present circumstances do not leave children with an alternative to earn money."

In comparison, in the Asia-Pacific region, 122 million children aged 5-14 are engaged in work, 5 million fewer than four years ago. "Less than 20 percent of Asian children in that age group are now at work," Guenther said.

About 2.5 million children under the age of 15 were at work in Western industrialized countries in 2004.

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Albion Monitor   May 5, 2006   (

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