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What’s Caused Child Labor To Plummet In The Last 10 Years?

Child labor numbers have dropped a third since 2000. How did we do that, and what can we do for the 168 million children still working?

What’s Caused Child Labor To Plummet In The Last 10 Years?
[Image via Shutterstock]

Here’s the good news about child labor: It’s down a third since 2000. There are now 168 million child laborers in the world, compared to 246 million 13 years ago. And the bad news? There are still 168 million children working when they should be at school or playing with their friends.

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To be clear: “child labor” isn’t kids helping with the dishes, or delivering papers on the weekends. And, what’s important isn’t so much the labor itself (though the work is often dangerous). It’s what child labor stops kids from doing. “The term ‘child labor’ is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood,” says the International Labor Organization. When children are working, they’re not developing physically, mentally, and emotionally, as other kids do.

According to the ILO’s new report, 11% of kids worldwide go to work. The Asia-Pacific region has the highest number, at 78 million. Sub-Saharan Africa has the biggest proportion (more than a fifth). More than half of all child laborers (59%) work in agriculture; about half of all work is “hazardous,” the ILO says.

The biggest declines from 2000 were among girls–down 40%–compared to 25% among boys. Levels fell in all regions, but were greatest in Asia-Pacific, where there was a decline from 114 million workers in 2008 to 78 million in 2012. The ILO is encouraged that many countries cut child labor rates during the recession, when you might expect more kids to be sent to work, not less.

What’s behind the improving numbers? The ILO says more countries have ratified its conventions on child labor, which set age limits and outlaw the “worst forms” of work. It also points to better enforcement, more access to education, “social protection floors,” and more “opportunities for youth above the minimum age” (which is 17 years old). The report doesn’t mention the influence of companies exporting better practices from the U.S. and Europe–but that is surely a factor, too.

Still, the child labor problem is nothing to be pleased about. Last year, the risk analysis consultancy Maplecroft identified 76 countries where child labor is rife, and where the risk to companies doing business there is “extreme.” Big countries such as the Philippines, India, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Brazil were all on the list–not just pariah states like North Korea and Somalia.

There are still too many kids working, when they should spending their time learning in classrooms.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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