Education International
Education International

Childhood is for school and play, not work

published 1 January 2007 updated 1 January 2007

There are mountains of garbage, as far as the eye can see. Vultures circle overhead. The heat is oppressive. Dust chokes the lungs. Above all, a powerful stench pervades the scene.

Match factory in India © ILO

All around, filthy children fight among themselves for bits of plastic, cardboard, or glass that could be recycled or sold for a few cents. Their mothers, often with another baby at the breast, struggle to keep them safe. But the big garbage trucks wheel in at high speed, with no regard for the little garbage pickers who could be hit or even killed under their big tires. This was the hellish reality Donatella Montaldo witnessed at a dump site outside of Guatemala City, where she worked for more than a year to help families get their children into school. “That dump site was like a whole horrible universe to itself,” she recalls. “It was surreal. You really wouldn’t want to believe it exists.” But, tragically, it does exist -- not only in Guatemala but in many other cities around the world, says Montaldo, who now works on Education International’s renewed campaign against child labour. The hidden nature of much child labour means accurate figures can be hard to obtain, but the International Labour Organization estimates that worldwide there are 218 million child labourers and 100 million employed adolescents. In 2006 the ILO released its Global Report on child labour. This report reveals that millions of children endure systemic violence in their workplaces, ranging from physical or verbal abuse to sexual harassment, rape and even murder. Some categories of child workers are considered most vulnerable, especially domestic workers, youth in the informal or ‘black’ economy, children in debt bondage and modern forms of slavery, such as human trafficking. Those children engaged in hazardous work, such as in mines, plantations, glass factories, or dump sites must endure lax or non-existent health and safety regulations. The report recommended a comprehensive programme of measures to tackle the underlying economic and cultural causes of child labour and to promote education and alternate livelihoods, as well as social mobilization to change attitudes about violence against children in the workplace. The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), the largest single operational programme of the ILO, spent more than $70 million on projects in 86 countries last year. Clearly, education is a fundamental tool in the global struggle against the scourge of child labour. That is why the ILO invited Education International to participate in the Global Task Force on Child Labour and Education for All. EI views this linkage between child labour and EFA as an essential step forward. After all, without access to quality education for all, what hope do child labourers have of a better future? Other partners in the new task force are UNESCO, UNICEF, the UNDP, the World Bank, and the Global March Against Child Labour. Together they aim to strengthen worldwide cooperation on the issue, and to mainstream efforts against child labour into national education plans. The impact of the AIDS pandemic must also be factored into the strategic plan. By the end of 2005, more than 15 million children had been orphaned by AIDS. Without parents to care for them, these children are at high risk of dropping out of school in order to survive and care for younger siblings. Tens of thousands of teachers, especially in Africa, have also died in the pandemic, thus further reducing the capacity of public education systems to respond. So, in the context of Education for All and the AIDS prevention work, EI has two key strategies to tackle child labour: prevention and monitoring. Preventing child labour by keeping children in school is more difficult than it may seem. But teachers’ unions in a number of countries have mounted effective programs that can serve as models. In Morocco, the Syndicat National de l’Enseignement (SNE-FDT) carried out a child labour prevention initiative in five schools in the city of Fez, targetting 3,000 children and their families. The union built good cooperative relations with the Ministry of Education, municipalities and local NGOs. The result? An amazing 90 percent decline in the drop-out rate from the five schools. These excellent outcomes have sparked additional plans to continue and expand the initiative. In Albania, the Trade Union Federation of Education and Science (FSASH-TUFESA) and the Independent Trade Union of Education of Albania (SPASH-ITUEA) have cooperated on a range of initiatives against child labour: capacity-building and training for members, lobbying and advocacy, publishing materials, programs with teachers and working children. They also organized a regional seminar which brought together more than 10 unions from countries in the region. EI’s other main thrust in 2007 will be to expand monitoring of child labour across the globe. A child labour mapping exercise now underway will give activists a clear picture of the sectors or forms of child labour in various jurisdictions, and the efforts teachers’ unions are making to support children to stay in school.