A quarter of children in Third World are working


EXPLOITATIVE and hazardous child labour, including commercial sexual exploitation, has not been eliminated from the industrialised world, the 1997 UNICEF report, The State of the World's Children says.

The report was introduced yesterday in Dublin by the Minister of State in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Ms Joan Burton. It estimates that at least a quarter of the children in the developing world are working, around 250 million children aged five to 14.

It lists four myths about child labour. First, that it is uniquely a problem of the developing world, when children routinely work in hazardous jobs in both Europe and North America. In the US child labour violations rose by 250 per cent between 1983 and 1990; a recent survey showed almost half the Mexican American children working on farms in New York state had worked in fields wet with pesticides, and over a third had been sprayed.

In Portugal, children of 12 "are subject to the heavy labour and myriad dangers of the construction industry". Child labour has substantially increased in Central and Eastern Europe as a result of the switch to market economies.

In Ireland both UNICEF and the ICTU are concerned about children selling newspapers, washing car windscreens and illegally selling tobacco. "They are all being exploited by somebody who is not allowing them to have a normal education," said Ms Maura Quinn, executive director of UNICEF Ireland, yesterday.

The second myth is that "child labour will never be eliminated until poverty disappears". However, UNICEF stresses that it "can and must be eliminated independently of poverty reduction", pointing to governments beginning to move to make good their commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Ninety six per cent of the world's children live under this Convention, the most widely ratified human rights instrument in history, with only the US, the Cook Islands, Oman, Somalia, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates having failed to ratify it.

The third myth is that most children work in sweatshops exporting cheap goods to the rich world. In fact few are employed in export industries; most are "to be found in the informal sector, selling on the street, at work in agriculture or hidden away in houses, far from the reach of official. Labour inspectors and from media scrutiny."

The final myth is that the only way to combat child labour is to apply pressure through sanctions and boycotts. UNICEF emphasises that these are blunt instruments which can harm the children involved and advocates a strategy which includes high quality primary education for liberated children.

The vast majority of all child" labourers continue to live in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Half of them are in Asia, although this figure may be declining in South East Asia as per capita income increases, basic education spreads and family size decreases. In Africa one child in three is at work; in Latin America, one in five.

It is estimated that at least a million girl children worldwide are lured or forced into commercial sexual exploitation, which is both open to serious health risks such as HIV.