The world is making significant progress in removing the scourge of child labor—there are 94 million fewer child laborers today than there were 16 years ago. I believe one of the reasons for this progress is the coming together of governments, worker groups, and human rights and child rights groups every four years for an international conference for focused strategy sessions on reducing child labor. I realize that there might be some skepticism that a conference could make much difference, but hear me out.
This year’s conference, organized by the government of Argentina and the International Labour Organization, took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 14-16 and brought together over 150 countries and about 3,000 individuals who are in some way involved in the fight against child labor. I was there representing the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which is co-chaired by the National Consumers League and the American Federation of Teachers, and has been fighting to reduce child labor for nearly three decades.
The conference featured many great panels. Several were about trying to confront work in agriculture—the most ubiquitous form of child labor (comprising 70 percent of the problem. Others confronted hazardous work, which involves 73 million children—almost half of the child labor population which is currently 152 million.
The CLC’s Norma Flores Lopez, the chair of our Domestic Issues Committee, spoke movingly about her own experiences working in US fields as a child farmworker. Norma noted her belief that racial discrimination plays a part in persistence of child labor. Most children impacted by child labor are children of color, she noted. Authorities, she suggested, feel less pressure to remedy the exploitation of racial and ethnic minorities. Conference participants seemed stunned to learn that the US has a child labor problem—our lax child labor laws allow children to work in agriculture beginning at age 12 and kids are allowed to work unlimited hours as long as they do not miss school. Some children work 80-90 hour weeks, performing back-breaking labor in stifling heat.
Jo Becker, a child rights specialist for Human Rights Watch and an active member of the CLC, spoke about hazardous work and the dangers children are routinely subjected to in the fields and other dangerous locations. Becker has been a leader in campaigns to remove children from combat, from mines, and from tobacco farms in recent years. She noted that Brazil lists child tobacco work as hazardous but the U.S. does not—something that the US government needs to fix. In 2014, Human Rights Watch published a ground-breaking report, “Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming,” based on interviews with children working on American tobacco farms found that more than half had suffered symptoms that correlated with nicotine poisoning.
Both Norma Flores Lopez and Sue Longley of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Association both spoke about sexual harassment that girls and young women experience in agriculture.
Tim Ryan, representing the Solidarity Center, the Global March Against Child Labor and the CLC, spoke about the importance of freedom of association and collective bargaining. Workplaces where unions exist, he suggested, typically have no child labor. Collective bargaining also empowers workers and increases wages. If parents can earn a living wage, there is much less need to bring children into the workforce, Ryan suggested.
We learned about progress in helping children that is being made around the world. Officials from Pakistan told us that child labor in brick kilns has been reduced by 83 percent. A Ghanaian official told us that 95 percent of children in his country are now in school, although there is still a great deal of child labor.
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, a close friend of the CLC, noted that child and indentured labor in Asian carpets has been reduced from one million to 250,000. Satyarthi spoke about the importance of educating the world’s out-of-school youth, noting that $22 billion would be sufficient to get all children into school. Without access to education, the elimination of child labor cannot happen, suggested Satyarthi.
There were many valuable insights at the conference, but I believe that the conference’s importance has a lot to do with bringing governments to the same place where inevitably the governments feel pressure to report progress. The countries—more than 150 of them—know that they will meet again in four years and will need to account for their lack of progress in reducing child labor.
The conference’s plenary session on its last day featured nearly 100 pledges from over 90 countries, worker rights groups, and nonprofits. In these pledges, participants identified strategies that they think will reduce child labor over the next four years as we move to the 2025 deadline set under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 8.7, which calls for the complete elimination of child labor. I had the privilege of making a pledge for the CLC. We pledged to work with Congress and the U.S. government to close the loopholes in child labor law that allow children to work at 12 in agriculture and to work to reduce hazardous work in US agriculture that is harming the health of thousands of children every year.
Kailash Satyarthi confided in participants that he hoped there would be no need for another global child labor conference—that we might end the scourge of child labor in the next four years. That is his dream—one we all share.