Asia must act to prevent growth in child labor: expert

Published by rudy Date posted on January 11, 2009

SINGAPORE – Asia must act quickly to prevent millions of children dropping out of school to go to work as the global economic crisis worsens, a rights expert has warned.

June Kane, an independent adviser to the United Nations and national governments on child rights, told Agence France-Presse the crisis was a chance for authorities in the region to tackle child labor by giving parents incentives to keep minors in education.

But she warned that authorities in Asia — the biggest employer of the world’s estimated 218 million child workers — must act now to provide help to parents who might otherwise be forced to send their children out to work.

“I think this crisis gives us a real opportunity to tackle child labor and to stop more children going into child labor,” said Kane in an interview on the sidelines of a UN conference about the impact of the global economic crisis on children.

“We can respond to the economic crisis, particularly amongst the poor and vulnerable families, by giving them incentives to send their children to school, whether they are cash incentives or feeding programs.”

The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines child workers as those under 15.

While many of these children work in the agriculture, manufacturing and service sectors, some are lured into slavery and prostitution, while others are recruited into armed groups, Kane said.

Protecting vulnerable children during economic crises was a major theme at the two-day Singapore conference sponsored by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

UNICEF’s top official in East Asia and the Pacific, Anupama Rao Singh, said the global recession could significantly raise infant mortality and malnutrition rates, and appealed to Asian governments not to cut back on social spending.

While research showing a direct link between economic crises and a rise in child labor remains scant, Kane said governments should implement measures now to curb any potential impact.

Only a “couple of million dollars” are needed to finance such incentives, Kane said, comparing this with the eight trillion dollars used by major economies to bail out ailing banks at the heart of the global financial crisis.

“Let’s not think that automatically more children are going to go to work. We have an opportunity to actually stop that from happening.”

Experts say child labor thrives in underground economies because employers can get away with paying underage workers less than their adult counterparts, and they are often hard to detect because they are illegal.

Consumer activism in the world’s major economies, however, has helped check the problem as shoppers refuse to buy products made using child labor, Kane said.

She cautioned against “knee-jerk” reactions by governments to focus aid automatically on the poor, saying that middle class families were also affected by the current crisis.–Agence France-Presse

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