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The Continuance of Child Labor


A slight bit of good news, as every nation has now passed the International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 182 on “The Worst Forms of Child Labor.” That’s great, but of course there needs to be enforcement and the ILO doesn’t have that capability. The fight is in creating mechanisms of enforcement and that very much includes in the United States. Moreover, child labor is simply incredibly prevalent around the world.

I’ve spoken to many children involved in hazardous child labor. Children in the Philippines relayed stories of diving into cold, deep, waters to mine for gold, breathing through an oxygen tube clenched between their teeth, and using toxic mercury to process gold they found.

In Indonesia, the United States, and Zimbabwe, children working on tobacco farms described backbreaking work cultivating and harvesting tobacco. Many told me they vomited, felt nauseous or dizzy, or got searing headaches while working with the plants – all symptoms of acute nicotine poisoning, which happens when nicotine is absorbed through the skin.

Poverty frequently drives children out of school and into child labor. Governments should invest in social protection programs to support families living in poverty, remove barriers to education for all children, and create strong laws and policies to identify and root out the worst forms of child labor.

Today is a day to celebrate. Universal ratification of the ILO Convention No. 182 is an important sign of a global commitment to ending hazardous child labor. But governments should take concrete action to protect all children from such work. And given new challenges posed by the pandemic, it is more important than ever.

The way that governments take concrete action is that we push them to do so. Which of course is question I have thought a lot about and have articulated a plan of action for. And yet, even in a moment where the Democratic Party is farther left than it has been in a very long time, with a great platform and increasingly activist candidates, these issues of labor exploitation, especially around globalization but even with existing pockets of child labor in the United States, are simply not on the radar screen.

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