“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” – Nelson Mandela
On the surface, so much of human society seems to revolve around children and in working towards a better and brighter tomorrow. And yet, the reality is that the needs of children – and the work that must be done to ensure a better future for them and their world – so often take a back seat to the needs (or even the whims and desires) of adults. I’ve written before about how children have always been one of the most unheard and unseen sectors of society. The treatment of childhood as a special and irreplaceable time of our lives is a fairly recent development and every victory in the battle for children’s rights has been hard won.
One of the fronts in this battle has been that of the struggle against child labor. In the past 20 years there has been significant progress made at reducing incidences of child labor, particularly the worst kinds. By some estimates, there are approximately 94 million fewer child laborers now as there were 20 years ago, from 246 million in 2000 to 152 million in 2020, and that is nothing to scoff at.
Just last year, an important milestone was reached when ILO Convention No. 182, which embodied a commitment to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, reached the status of unanimous ratification among all 187 members of the International Labor Organization (ILO). There was still much work to be done, of course, but progress was slowly and steadily being made.
And then, COVID-19 happened.
Now, the pandemic and its accompanying restrictions on movement and business has the potential of upending and reversing decades of progress in the fight against child labor. According to a report released jointly by the ILO and UNICEF, called “COVID-19 and Child Labor: A Time of Crisis, A Time to Act,” while the full impact of the pandemic on the global child labor situation are as yet unclear, some effects are already being seen: “The pandemic has increased economic insecurity, profoundly disrupted supply chains and halted manufacturing. Tightening credit is constraining financial markets in many countries. Public budgets are straining to keep up. When these and other factors result in losses in household income, expectations that children contribute financially can intensify.” The director-general of the ILO put it this way: “If we don’t step up our game, the risk is real that we go backwards instead of going forward as we must…”
The backsliding is already happening all over the world, and it is not difficult to see why. Millions have lost their jobs or seen a drastic reduction in their income because of the pandemic. In the worst cases, families have lost their breadwinners completely. Some because of unemployment, others because of death and still others because the parents have left their children on their own. In Venezuela, an NGO has reported that as of 2020 at least 830,000 Venezuelan children and adolescents were living without one or both parents due to migration. And even without the pandemic, other evils can deprive children of their ability to lead normal lives – conflict zones continue to create orphans without the help of the pandemic, from Tigray to Gaza.
But the effect of the pandemic – particularly the closing of schools – cannot be overestimated. Historically, compulsory public education was one of the most important tools of the movement against child labor. And while remote learning was possible for some, it left behind those without the necessary resources to consistently access internet-enabled learning… in other words, those low-income families that would be most vulnerable to the perils of child labor in the first place.
The simple fact is that most families that resort to child labor do not do so out of some nefarious desire to monetize their children. They do so out of desperation, not to exploit the children, but to feed the children. This is all the more true when children are left to fend for themselves – who else will provide for them, or their younger siblings? This is the reason that any solutions aimed at stopping child labor must take poverty into account.
And child labor is a problem that we must solve as quickly as possible. Even if child labor is being resorted to for urgent, immediate needs, it can create a vicious cycle that could afflict families for generations to come. The longer one is out of school, the more difficult it is to return, especially if the family becomes dependent on the extra income. And if the working child grows into an adult without finishing their education, their capacity to earn will be heavily reduced, which could lead to their own children having to resort to child labor in a vicious cycle.
What can be done? The UN General Assembly has unanimously adopted a resolution declaring 2021 as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labor. While this is an important commitment on the part of States, it must be matched by localized action that does not merely focus on prohibitive legislation – the worst forms of child labor are already illegal in most countries – but on practical matters of both enforcement and support. The latter in particular is important to combat the surge in child labor due to the hard times brought about by the pandemic. Focusing on providing support for vulnerable families – through directly addressing their financial distress, easier access to credit to allow them to continue sending their children to school and increased investment in social services and support systems, will keep children out of the labor force.
Here in the Philippines, we have just reached the end of the four-year US-Philippines Child Protection Compact (CPC) Partnership and have already engaged in talks regarding the next steps. We also need to act on reports regarding areas of concern involving child labor, such as the mining industry in Romblon which was cited in a recent CHR report.
We must continue to be vigilant and find new ways to offer support for families in need. Above all, we must keep families from needing to make such a horrible choice: to trade in the future of their children for their survival in the present.
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