Masud, 10, works under hazardous and unhealthy conditions at a garbage dumping site in Demra, Dhaka on 4 April, 2012. He cannot afford any shoes and is vulnerable to injuries and disease. Credit: UNICEF/UNI123128/Khan (File Photo) - Photo: 2023

Reversing Child Labour is Possible

By Simone Galimberti*

KATHMANDU, Nepal, 9 June 2023 (IDN) — A little more than an year ago the international community gathered in Durban, South Africa to chalk out a way forward in the fight against child labour.

The gathering, officially the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour, did indeed provide a roadmap, a comprehensive response on this plague but that alone won’t be enough.

The problem is not with the strategy itself but rather with the lack of will in implementing it, starting with the funding needed to do so.

More resources but also a better use of those already available, together with a series of due diligence legislations, can make the difference in the fight against child labour.

The document correctly focuses on the importance of interventions in the agriculture sector, still the predominant source of income for the people in many developing nations.

There is also a clear emphasis on the role that quality and inclusive education can play in ensuring that children are kept out of the work-force, both in the formal and informal sectors.

Social protection mechanisms are also recognized as the indispensable tools to uplift families from poverty and deprivation.

As highlighted by UNICEF and ILO in a joint report, there is more and more robust evidence on how “social protection—by helping families cope with economic or health shocks—reduces child labour and facilitates schooling”.

Unfortunately, the Durban Call for Action as the official outcome document of the conference is called, while offers a concrete, actionable policy agenda for change, lacks the resources that are indispensable to put an end to all the types of child exploitation.

Moreover, the gathering in South Africa did not draw the deserving attention with an almost minimal coverage.

This might indicate a change in perception within the global community about the strategic urgency of the fight against child labour.

Perhaps climate change, the war in Ukraine, geopolitical tensions between super powers in Asia Pacific, the rise of populism in liberal democracies, have eroded the visibility that child labour used to command only few years ago.

At least more clarity is emerging in not considering this plague as a standing alone issue but rather as one of the many default consequences of a world in which too many people still live in poverty.

That’s why a comprehensive focus on financing the whole Agenda 2030 with its seventeen goals can be the only way forward to effectively tackle the disparities and inequalities on the ground that still enable children’ exploitation to occur.

Scaling up social protection tools, even progressively, would require trillions of dollars and the same can be said on the need of huge amounts of resources to upgrade the education sector in the South of the world.

And we cannot forget that rich and developed nations are still unable to fulfil their promises in financing climate action, the famous commitment to mobilize $100 billion a year in climate finance for low- and middle-income countries.

Oxfam’s recently published Climate Finance Shadow Report 2023, is the latest indictment against them as it shows that they have at most disbursed $ 24.5 billion in 2020 despite claiming a three time bigger figure.

Unless a new approach to financing the implementation of the Agenda 2030 is hammered out, hardly any real breakthrough in the fight against child labour will occur.

Let’s not forget that, according to the Child Labour Global Estimate 2020, child labour rose to 160 million, the first increase in two decades.

Considering also the devastating effects of the pandemic had on children from vulnerable families, many of whom were forced to abandon their learning, this is a stunning reverse from the past.

Only the last four years saw a surge of 8.4 million children in the work force globally and this is unacceptable.

It is hard to believe how all the talks on “building back better” did not materialize in concrete actions to support the families who were already struggling before COVID-19.

Recently there have been a call for the World Bank to “double down” on its funding for low income countries and the same pressure is felt by other international and regional financing organizations around the world.

The Bank has been trying to come up with new funding mechanisms since over six months according to an exclusive report published by Reuters in January this year.

A breakthrough can only happen when the G7 countries come up with a tangible pledge in doing whatever it takes to ensure an adequate flow of funding to the South.

So far, such an ambition has not materialized yet and the last G7 Summit in Okinawa was, in this regard, a real disappointment.

Yet, in the meanwhile, what could be done to at least block the rising tide of child labour?

On the one hand, some new legislations in the North can truly make the difference while governments of developing countries can do a better job in this fight with the resources and legislation already in place.

On May 3, Canada passed the Fighting against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act that has been referred to as Canada’s Modern Slavery Act.

Just last week, on June 1st, the EU came closer to having a comprehensive due diligence legislation for the private sector.

The EU Parliament voted on a groundbreaking bill that now will have to be reconciled with the governments in the EU Council and with the European Commission.

Though imperfect and watered down by the corporate lobbying, such legislations could also have an effect in the fight against child labour especially in relation to plantation works.

On this aspect, the EU also has been proactive also against deforestations with a specific legislation being recently approved.

While these new compliance measures might compel corporations to take seriously their duties and responsibilities in terms of human rights, including children’s rights, it is up to the nations in the South to take action as well.

If developing countries lack the resources to scale up their investments in social protection and education, at least they should ensure that any social investment is carried out transparently and with adequate accountability mechanisms.

Corruption is a huge issue and without tackling it head-on, hardly any good governance agenda, that is indispensable to achieve the SDGs, can be accomplished.

A better use of resources could help leveraging the agriculture sector for better productivity, a process necessarily must include small farmers.

Shockingly, 70% of children involved in child labour are in the agriculture sector. 

The re-purposing agenda aimed at reforming the existing forms of agriculture support, can also be helpful.

Being championed by FAO and IFAD, it means in practice re-investing the public money to ensure different, more nutritious and healthy outputs and it certainly come with some trade-offs.

Yet it can also offer an opportunity to find novel ways to engage vulnerable farmers.

In terms of education, much more should be expected by teachers and public education systems in developing countries.

It is not a coincidence that next year the Global Education Monitoring Report published annually by UNESCO, is going to be dedicated to leadership considered to be “at the heart of the quality education.

Head Masters, teachers and public officials can truly make a difference in offering, despite the limited resources, stronger learning outcomes.

Even the potential of scholarships, that are actually an un-recognized social protection tool, should be re-valuated and, with much stronger monitoring system on how they are disbursed in place, they could be a very effective tool to retain children at school.

Another aspect that governments in the development nations should focus on is about empowerment of youths.

Also as explained last year in Durban, youths want more urgency, and a voice in the decision making, especially at local levels.

This is basically a quest for a different form of governance that should be based on localizing the SDGs, offering citizens the space to at least co-decide on how resources are allocated.

Unless a wave of global development funding is made available in the South, ensure the eradication of child labour by 2025 as per SDG target 8.7, according to which nations take measure to end child in all its forms by 2025, might be impossible and impractical.

What instead is possible and realistic is to make a real effort to at least reverse the downward trends with the resources and means available now.

Small gestures do matter, especially when legislations are already in place but hardly enforced.

Recently the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) showed some resolution in the cause against child labor.

As it “warned of action as per the existing laws in case of failing to get enlisted within 15 days of the notice considering that the person was employing child labour”, at least elected officials are not ignoring the issue, pretending it does not exist as it was happening for many years in the past.

Perhaps, despite the daunting scenario, there are some elements that can make this International Day against Child Labour less gloomy and a more optimistic one.

*Simone Galimberti is the co-founder of ENGAGE and The Good Leadership. He writes about youths’ involvement in the UN, social development and human rights. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Masud, 10, works under hazardous and unhealthy conditions at a garbage dumping site in Demra, Dhaka on 4 April, 2012. He cannot afford any shoes and is vulnerable to injuries and disease. Credit: UNICEF/UNI123128/Khan (File Photo)

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