Are we any closer to ending Child Labour?

There are still 152 million children around the world in Child Labour. So what’s the role of Australia and our aid program in combating this issue in our region?

Child’s labour. Child’s play. The latter is so pure and agreeable. There is an undeniable heaviness in the consideration of a child, labouring. Children do contribute to family work, no doubt, but that is not what the World Day Against Child Labour is standing against.

Definitions of what constitutes child labour are relatively universal. Work performed by a child that is hazardous is considered child labour, as is any work performed by children under the age of 12. ‘Light work’ for a child between the ages of 12 – 15 is permissible, so long as it is for no longer than 14 hours per week. If work removes a child from regular education and healthy childhood play, it is damaging to their development as children, and thus constitutes child labour.

Worldwide, there are currently around 218 million children in employment, 152 million in child labour, 73 million of these are in hazardous work. A useful visual summary of the Global Estimates of Child Labour can be found here.

Children worldwide are carrying out night work or long hours, dangerous work underground, underwater or from great heights, with machinery, heavy manual handling and exposure to harmful chemicals. For children in these conditions not only is their ability to access education affected, but their health, development and most devastatingly, their hope.

In El Salvador, 12 year old Alejandra is sustained on cigarettes and pills to keep her awake and deter the mosquitos, as she spends up to 14 hours a day, knee deep in mud searching for curlies. There is no time for school, no time for play. On the verge of young womanhood, Alejandra is rejected by her peers, her identity is covered by the stigma of being a curlies worker.

Alejandra is captured in the data of the 73 million children in hazardous work. Unfortunately, these reports are simply unable to capture accurate information on the worst forms of child labour such as slavery, trafficking, recruitment in armed conflicts, prostitution and illicit activities.

The positive news is, since the year 2000 there has been a drop of 94 million children in child labour, despite significant population growth in this time.

While child labour most often conjures up the image of sweatshops, the most prevalent industry is actually agriculture, with 7 out of 10 children in child labour in the agricultural industry. This is of particular significance for Australia, as a recent report by Amnesty International demonstrates extensive use of child labour on palm oil plantations in our closest neighbour, Indonesia.

Children as young as 8 years old carry out hard physical work and are subjected to meeting strict targets. Despite being widely restricted world over, many workers, including children, are offered no protection to the exposure of toxic herbicide Paraquat.

In the Asia and Pacific, encouragingly, the percentage of children has dropped 2 percent between 2012 and 2016 alone, going to show that with the right measures and action, this number can be worked down. By investing into our neighbours in the pacific, specifically nations such as Indonesia, we are helping to raise a generation of children whose children will not be cornered into the workforce before they are ready.

Child labour is inextricably linked to poverty. That is not to say that modern slavery does not exist in developed nations. However at the core of child labour are families that would prefer to see their kids in education. It is the desperation of families struggling to survive.

Here is where the hope lies. We can invest strategically, we can empower parents in sustainable work practices that meet the needs of the family and give the space for children to thrive.


What is being done about this globally?

As part of the Sustainable Development Goals, global leaders committed themselves to the eradication of child labour in particular, with target 8.7, declaring the need to:

“take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms”

While not all children in labour are forced, there is a clear link between poverty, modern slavery and child labour. This is where the implementation of a Modern Slavery Act by UN member states is seen to be a key approach to working down the number of children in child labour.

The UK have emerged as new world leaders in governmental action against slavery with the introduction of their Modern Slavery Act 2015. One of the biggest successes of the act has been the introduction of Transparency in Supply Chain Provisions, requiring UK businesses that turn over greater than €36 million to report on supply chains.

Businesses have the option to report that ‘no steps have been taken’ to understand their supply chain, the requirement is simply to report. The advantage in this approach is that it leverages social pressure – giving power (and responsibility) to the consumer – rather than adding another layer of reporting and potentially bearing the label of ‘red tape’.

It is not easy nor popular to have a business statement essentially reflecting that ‘no, we don’t think it is important to ensure no fellow human beings are being held down in forced labour as a direct result of my business’. The UK government has taken the lead in raising the profile of modern slavery, giving a platform for not-for-profits who have been fighting modern slavery and child labour for decades the opportunity to discuss why this is important, and what we can do about it.

The Transparency in Supply Chains (TISC) Report is one of the practical outworkings of the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015, as a publicly available registry for businesses to make their statements on. Currently 10,000 business have a statement released, with a further 18,900 whose reports are expected or overdue. Encouragingly, over 126,000 international businesses and organisations have offered a statement, including those who have voluntarily opted in.


What about in Australia?

On a national level, Australia has a commitment to combat trafficking, which is a contributor to the most vulnerable of children, not necessarily caught in the 73 million statistic. Around $1 billion of our overseas development assistance is directed towards the South-East and East Asia. The Australia-Asia Program to Combat Trafficking In Persons has been Australia’s approach from 2013-2018. However a new program is currently in consultation with justice agencies and experts from the ten ASEAN Member States. The current program is set to conclude at the end of 2018, with the design for the new investment currently in process.

Australia has long since ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, where Article 32 states:

“Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”

Article 31 also recognises children’s right to leisure and play appropriate to their age, of which the economic exploitation in child labour robs them. Australia, along with all other member states who have committed on paper to the dignity of children worldwide, requires extensive practical steps to achieve.

It is evident therefore that protection of children from the trauma of child labour has been a long standing value of our nation. The recent National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery 2015-19 symbolises a recommitment to the issues of modern slavery and child labour and certainly lays the groundwork for something more comprehensive, such as a Modern Slavery act similar to the UK’s.

According to the Hidden in Plain Sight Report, the Australian Government “supports a range of measures to combat modern slavery internationally through regional engagement and foreign aid”. This kind of statement is at best vague, and in light of the recent and continual decline in Australia’s foreign aid, these cuts could potentially have a detrimental impact on our ability to deliver aid that combats child labour in our region.

While Australia does have slavery and human trafficking legislation in place, it is covered over 11 different agencies and holds some key differences to the most groundbreaking aspects of the UK Modern Slavery Act. Most notably, Australia has no equivalent to an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, does not have transparency requirements in supply chains, nor statutory defence for victims of modern slavery who are compelled to commit a crime as a result of their situation.

In her submission to the Australia’s inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act,  Ms Caroline Haughey shares from her experience on the UK act. Her comments add to the resolve that a Modern Slavery Act is as much symbolic power to the citizens as it is practical support for existing systems.

“It would be a terrible shame if Australia turned its back on what we know happens. It does not have to be as complex and convoluted, perhaps, as the English legislation is, but what it has to do is empower your prosecutors and investigators to know that they can battle this and win. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Raise its profile by having this act on the books, by simplifying it and by putting the legislation in one place”

A Modern Slavery Bill similar to what is being called for on a national level, last week, passed through the NSW state parliament. Passed by the Legislative Assembly last Wednesday, this bill introduces supply chain requirements, an anti-slavery commissioner, broader community awareness campaigns and the implementation of risk orders.

State legislation is a certainly start. This represents a win for the protection of children in labour, as a new sector is brought into transparency around the sourcing and production of everything from kitkats to mobile phones. But we have the scope to multiply our impact by going nationwide. Our hope is with NSW leading the way, the rest of Australia would jump at the opportunity to see the right to childhood preserved worldwide.

Now is the ideal time to stand with us during the World Day Against Child Labour. The success in the UK is something to celebrate, and to encourage our own national leaders to follow suit. Work is so key to our experience as humans, to our ability to thrive and retain dignity. In slavery, and in child labour, work continues to be twisted into an inhibitor rather than a liberator of poverty. There are ethical movements all around us striving to undo this perversion, so why not join all our efforts and make child labour a mere memory?

Image credit: Getty Images via The Guardian/UNICEF.