Global recession ‘fuelling’ child labour

The economic crisis may be “slowing down the global pace of reduction” of child labour, warns a report that calls for a gear-change in the campaign to end the practice.

The findings, released by the International Labour Organisation in its quadrennial Global Report on Child Labour, will worry Burma observers: Burma remains one of only six countries in the Asia-Pacific region never to have signed a UN convention on the ‘worst forms of child labour’.

In the period 2004 to 2008, the number of children used for labour across the world fell from 222 million to 215 million, marking a three percent drop. But, the financial crisis triggered in 2007 is now an obstacle in the race to eliminate the “worst forms” of child labour by 2016, the report says, as cheap or free labour is used to counter the shortfall in capital.

The UN convention defines the “worst forms” as including all forms of slavery and sexual exploitation of minors, as well as the offering of children by others (normally adults) for use in illegal activities. The report says that in Africa, one in four children is involved in some form of child labour.

The issue of child labour in Burma remains a murky subject; no statistics are available because neither the ILO nor UNICEF is mandated to investigate the overall problem in Burma. The ILO however does monitor the use of forced labour in the country, which includes child soldiers.

The Burmese government is thought to be one of the world’s leading recruiters of child soldiers, and a 2002 report by Human Rights Watch said that as many as 70,000 children under 18 could be in the army. There is a strong financial incentive in the recruitment of minors into the army: battalion commanders are required to fulfil a quota of troop numbers, and if successful are rewarded with food or money.

But, warns Steve Marshall, the ILO’s liaison officer in Rangoon, the use of underage soldiers is just a fraction of the wider phenomenon of child labour in Burma, where minors are often forced either by the army or family to work on construction projects and in factories.

The definition of ‘underage’ with regards to labour under Burmese law varies depending on the industry; children under 15 are not to be employed in factories at night, whereas 15 to 18-year-olds can. The same applies under the Oilfield (Labour and Welfare) Act.

Under section 65(a) of Burma’s Child Law, children are prohibited from working in environments which are “hazardous to the life of the child or which may cause disease to the child or which is harmful to the child’s moral character”, yet the flouting of this law is well-documented.

A DVB investigation last year found that children had been used in the construction of networks of military tunnels underneath Burma, while Inside Burma, a 1996 documentary by Australian journalist John Pilger, filmed teams of children working in brick kilns. The Burmese army is also known to use children as minesweepers; ordered to walk in front of troop patrols and shield them from the blast of a landmine.

The ILO report said however that child labour in the Asia-Pacific region was “dropping faster than anywhere else”. It said that with regard to children aged five to 14 in employment, numbers had declined by 26 million. But, it warned, “more children are at work today here in Asia-Pacific than the rest of the world combined”.

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