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Since 2016, child labour has been on the rise again. © Shutterstock
It is not without reason that the international community has declared 2021 the "International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour". According to a recent report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 160 million children are currently victims of child labour. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of child labour cases worldwide fell by 94 million, but since then, cases have risen by 8.4 million. The increase is greatest among children between 5 and 11 years old.
Child labour is mainly found in agriculture (70%), followed by the service sector (20%) and industry (10%). As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, between 9 and 46 million additional children are at risk of having to work. Climate disruption also poses a threat. After all, both phenomena increase the poverty of many parents who then, out of pure necessity, have to make their children work.
It is important to note for the sake of clarity that we are not talking about a few hours a week helping out around the house or a casual summer holiday job. Real child labour forms a barrier to education and inhibits physical, mental and social development.
In fact, 79 million children perform work that is downright dangerous to their mental or physical health, an increase of 6.5 million since 2016. Examples include carrying heavy loads, exposure to hazardous substances or long working hours. Victims of child labour are more than likely to suffer poverty as adults and in turn have to make their own children work to make ends meet.
The root causes of child labour are indeed related to poverty, but also a lack of decent work for parents, a culture that normalises the phenomenon, migration, and emergencies. Solutions are only sustainable if they address those causes, for example, by means of social protection, jobs, decent and affordable education, respect for international labour and human rights, and so on.
There is certainly no lack of international regulation. For example, the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999) has already been ratified by all countries. The ILO Convention on Minimum Age (1973) has been endorsed by 173 countries, but 14 have not yet done so. Furthermore, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states that children have the right to protection against economic and sexual exploitation, dangerous and harmful work, and work that interferes with their education.
Moreover, through the Sustainable Development Goals (specifically SDG 8.7), the international community has committed to eliminating the worst forms of child labour, including the use of child soldiers, by 2025.
The European Union also provides for all kinds of regulation. For example, it has zero tolerance for child labour in its trade agreements. Developing countries will only be given easier access to the European market if they subscribe to the ILO Conventions on child labour and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
With Beyond Chocolate, Belgium wants its chocolate free from child labour by 2030. Photo: Women washing cocoa beans in Ivory Coast. © Shutterstock
Belgium is endeavouring to eliminate child labour from the world in many ways. For example, our country pays 6 million euros annually to the ILO (3 million compulsory contribution, 3 million voluntary). By doing so, it supports ILO campaigns to promote decent work worldwide and eradicate child labour. At the UN in New York, Belgium is Co-chair of the Group of Friends of Decent Work for Sustainable Development. Meanwhile, UNICEF, the UN organisation dedicated to the protection of children, receives 15 million euros annually.
Nine Belgian non-governmental actors – partners of the Belgian Development Cooperation – are carrying out projects promoting decent work, funded with 92 million euros in the period 2017-2021. Funding has been extended for 2021-2026. Within the governmental cooperation, 50 million euros were provided, spread over 5 years, to support social protection and decent work in Central Africa.
Belgium also actively promotes the protection of children in armed conflicts. For example, our country has been funding the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism of the UN's Children And Armed Conflict mandate through UNICEF since 2010. During its membership of the UN Security Council, it was also an active chair of the UN Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict.
Belgium is fighting human trafficking through the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). As part of this, our country donated 2 million euros to a UNODC fund that provides assistance to victims of human trafficking, particularly women and children. Former Belgian minister Inge Vervotte sits on the five-member Board of Trustees.
A particular concern for a chocolate-loving nation like Belgium is the child labour hidden in cocoa production. For this reason, our country launched the Beyond Chocolate initiative in 2018. The aim is to make the cocoa sector in Belgium 100% sustainable by 2025, to combat child labour and deforestation by 2030, and to guarantee a living wage for 140,000 to 190,000 small cocoa farmers. Beyond Chocolate comprises a broad, highly motivated coalition: from chocolate companies and supermarkets to NGOs, social impact investors, universities, trade unions, certification bodies, and the Belgian Government.
Child labour is a stain on the world's honour. Much of it has to do with poverty and inequality. Belgium will continue working to ensure that every child can enjoy his or her childhood in complete safety and security.