Latin America: 15 Million Street Children/International Labor

Tom Boland (
Thu, 7 May 1998 22:03:05 -0700 (PDT)



At least 15 million children at work in Latin America
The most intolerable forms of child labour
targeted at the Cartagena Meeting

With child labour rising in the region, government ministers
and officials from 20 Latin-American countries
will discuss strategies for its elimination

Wednesday 7 May 1997 (ILO/97/11 )

GENEVA (ILO News) ! In a new international offensive against the most
intolerable forms of child labour, government ministers and senior
officials from 20 Latin-American countries will meet in Cartagena on 8
and 9 May to reaffirm the region's political commitment to combating
and eliminating the exploitation of millions of child workers.

Organized by the Government of Colombia in close collaboration with
the International Labour Organization, the First Latin-American
Meeting on Child Labour will bring together international experts as
well as trade union and employers' representatives in an attempt to
increase public awareness of the tragedies being suffered by millions
of Latin-American children who ! be it labouring in fields from dawn
till dusk, firing bricks in blazing kilns, digging up stones in
quarries or engaging in prostitution on the streets of the big cities
! live and work in wretched conditions.

The opening ceremony will be held at the Las AmThetaricas Hotel at 9 a.m.
on Friday 9 May in the presence of the Colombian President, Mr.
Ernesto Samper Pizano, and the Director-General of the ILO, Mr. Michel

A report prepared by the ILO (Endnote 1) for the Cartagena Meeting
estimates that no less than 15 million children work in Latin America,
with approximately half of these child workers between the ages of six
and 14 years old. "In numerical terms ! says Mr. Hansenne ! these
figures might appear relatively low in comparison to the 250 million
children the ILO believes work throughout the world. The figures
become more alarming however when translated into the fact that one in
every five Latin-American children is a child worker."

The Cartagena Meeting on child labour is being held at a time when the
region's economies are experiencing a phase of development
characterized by scant employment creation in the modern sector, the
growth of informal work, the dwindling role of the State as employer,
the stagnation of real wages and persistent poverty in the majority of
countries.( Endnote 2 )"At the same time" ! notes the report ! "the
number and proportion of children starting work at an early age is on
an upward trend."

Available statistics show that between 20 and 25 per cent of children
between the ages of six and 14 are currently working in Latin America,
a labour force representing on average just under 5 per cent of the
economically active population in the region. "This proportion" !
indicates the ILO report ! "is relatively close to the rate of open
unemployment, which suggests that child labour is, to a greater or
lesser extent, acting as a labour force reserve."

The majority of children who work do so in conditions that are clearly
dangerous for their safety, health and emotional stability; they are
subjected to physical and moral indignities and to exhausting working
hours stretching far beyond the limits set by legislation.

In the agricultural sector ! where, according to the report, almost 60
per cent of the child labour force is concentrated and which, in the
opinion of the experts, is one of the most dangerous and difficult
environments ! children work at the mercy of the elements, in
unnatural positions, are exposed to chemical substances, sharp tools
and animal and insect bites. Children from rural areas, and girls in
particular, usually begin working between the ages of five and seven.

Child labour has been gradually spreading through towns and cities as
a result of urbanization. Here children work in micro-enterprises,
informal sector workshops, street markets or in the provision of petty
services. Hundreds of thousands of girls ! approximately 10 per cent
of the child labour force according to the report ! work long days as
domestic workers in an environment where beatings, insults and sexual
harassment are all too common.

A common sight in the urban centres of Latin America, street children
represent between 5 per cent and 20 per cent of the children and
adolescents working in cities. Children can be found working as rag
pickers and garbage collectors, and they are also involved in marginal
economic activities on the street. Delinquency and poverty drive
thousands of street children into prostitution, pornography, drug
trafficking and other illegal activities.

The ILO warns of the special fragility of children from indigenous
populations who may work "two or three times more than the rest of the

Although the modern sector of the economy employs only an
inconsequential level of child manpower (less than 10 per cent) the
report calls attention to hidden methods of contracting under-aged
workers such as "home work, subcontracting to micro-enterprises in the
informal sector, and in particular, small and medium-sized
plantations, where such workers abound but where their participation
is underestimated, as they are employed either as the unpaid helpers
of their parents or clandestinely".

Unlike the other regions of the world where child manpower costs
little or nothing, in Latin America there is a large category of
wage-earning children. The ILO report puts at between 45 and 50 per
cent the number of wage-earning children in the ten to 14 age group.
The younger ones are generally unpaid family workers. But even when
the children receive some form of remuneration for their work, it is
invariably lower than adult earnings, even "when they work the same or
even longer hours than the adults". In general, children are paid a
pittance on the pretext that they are being offered the opportunity to
learn a trade, and it is common ! the report notes ! "to artificially
prolong the time of apprenticeship in order to go on paying a lower
wage". In domestic service, children's remuneration is often limited
to board and lodging.

The report recognizes that many poor families have little choice but
to turn to child labour and that it would be difficult for them to
resign themselves to its loss. Children can make a large contribution
to the family income, particularly in households facing extreme
poverty and especially in single parent households where the mother is
the sole breadwinner. "It is very likely that many households not
currently affected by dire poverty would become so if their younger
members did not work."

However ! the ILO points out ! "not all poor children work and not all
those who work are poor". Many destitute families continue to opt for
education and will only see their children working as a last resort.
Such families have a fundamental influence on the level of development
of the education system, the proportion of potentially active adults,
and access, or otherwise, to social services which enable adults with
family responsibilities to work without having to rely on the help of
their children.

Many Latin-American children work to pay for their studies. Although
work makes schooling more difficult, and in many cases prevents it
entirely, child labour has ceased to be synonymous with dropping out
of school. In fact, between 28 per cent and 65 per cent of working
children are studying at the same time. However, those who go to
school as well as work face special difficulties in their schooling.
Highly intensive work and extremely long days result in lack of
punctuality and absenteeism; fatigue interferes with school
performance. Children who work ! as the report states ! are more
liable to fail at school.

This is why the ILO is calling on the governments of the region to
undertake educational reform as a priority action in the campaign
against child labour. "It is not always for work-related reasons" !
explains the report ! "that children do not attend school; the reasons
are often linked to shortcomings in available education. There are
still insufficient schools and the quality of education is generally
only poor or mediocre. Many heads of households opt for work over
schooling for their children because of the immediate advantages it
offers in terms of income and entry to the labour market."

ILO action

The First Latin-American Meeting on the Elimination of Child Labour is
part of a vigorous offensive the international community is leading
against the exploitation of working children. The most recent inroads
were made at the Amsterdam Conference in February this year, and
action will be further intensified at the coming Oslo Conference
scheduled for October 1997.

The ILO has been endeavouring to put an end to child labour since the
Organization was founded in 1919. "The ILO doctrine is clear",
observes ILO Director-General, Mr. Michel Hansenne, "work performed by
children under the age of 15 in conditions which restrict their
physical, intellectual or psychological development must be

Today, the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138) is the principal ILO
instrument in the field of child labour. The countries which have
ratified it undertake to apply national policies aimed at ensuring the
effective abolition of child labour and to progressively raise the
minimum age of entry to employment or work until it reaches a level
compatible with the full physical and mental development of young

In 1998 and 1999 the ILO will initiate the discussion and possible
adoption of a new international Convention on the most intolerable
forms of child exploitation, including the sale and trafficking of
children, forced or compulsory labour, the use or supply of children
for prostitution or pornography, and the use of minors in the
production and trafficking of drugs. It is hoped that the Cartagena
Meeting will be a major driving force towards this goal.

The current ILO offensive against child labour includes a technical
cooperation programme designed to support countries in action taken to
eliminate this problem. Established in 1992, the International
Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) promotes coherent
and dynamic cooperation between governments, workers' and employers'
organizations, non-governmental organizations and other sectors of
civil society. Largely thanks to a major financial contribution from
the Government of Spain, the IPEC programme currently operates in 13
Latin American countries, giving impetus to over 170 activities,
focused principally on the youngest children and on children exposed
to the most extreme forms of exploitation and to abusive conditions.

The IPEC programme in Colombia, in close collaboration with the state
coal company, is targeting the elimination of child labour in informal
sector coal mines; in Peru, the programme's activities are focused on
children who work in brickworks and quarries; in Brazil, attempts are
being made to put an end to the exploitation of girls who fall victim
to prostitution; in Guatemala, attention is centred on the minors who
spend their time manufacturing fireworks; in Costa Rica, the programme
seeks to prevent child labour in the banana industry, and so on.

It is hoped that a Final Declaration drawn up by the Cartagena Meeting
will reaffirm the region's commitment to work towards the effective
abolition of child exploitation in Latin America with the conviction,
in the words of Mr. Michel Hansenne, that "a crime against a child
anywhere will be considered a crime everywhere".

Endnote 1:

Primera Reuni<=9DIberoamericana Tripartita de Nivel Ministerial.
Cartagena de Indias, 8-9 de Mayo de 1997. Documento informativo n.m. 1
! Situaci<=9Ddel Trabajo Infantil en AmThetarica Latina. International
Labour Office, Lima, May 1997 (in Spanish only).

Endnote 2:

Panorama Laboral '96 ! AmThetarica Latina y el Caribe. International
Labour Office, Lima. ISBN 1020-4318 (in Spanish only).


=46or further information, please contact Bureau of Public Information
(PRESSE) at Tel: +41.22.799.7940 or Fax: +41.22.799.8577.