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Countries Make Progress on Ending Exploitative Child Labor
June 13, 2014

Girls in school uniforms
Governments have a critical role to play in ensuring that all children have access to basic education, writes Bama Athreya, a senior specialist for labor and employment rights at USAID.

12 June 2014

An ambitious social movement to eradicate child labor globally came together two decades ago and has enjoyed unprecedented success, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

In a blog post published on USAID’s website on June 12, the annual World Day Against Child Labour, Bama Athreya, a senior specialist for labor and employment rights, said that in the late 1990s an estimated 250 million children were engaged in various forms of labor. In 2014, that total has dropped to 168 million.

“The decline has particularly benefitted girls; total child labor among girls has fallen by 40 percent since 2000, compared to a drop of 25 percent for boys,” Athreya writes.

Policymakers define child labor as work that is hazardous to a child’s health, education, or physical or mental development. Researchers estimate 98 million children worldwide work in agriculture harvesting tobacco, cocoa, rubber and other global commodities. Children also work in dangerous industries like shipbreaking, and in services such as restaurant work.

The United States has been working to break the cycle of poverty perpetuated by child labor through several strategies.


U.S. government agencies, in particular the U.S. Department of Labor, have produced major reports documenting the issues. In the mid-2000s, USAID also supported the creation of a photo and video repository that ultimately was turned into a film, Stolen Childhoods.

“The film documented not only the problem but examples of what interventions could help working children — such as a new USAID-supported schoolhouse in communities of coffee pickers in Kenya, creating opportunities for children who had been working on coffee farms to attend school for the first time,” according to Athreya.

Awareness-raising campaigns also have flagged child labor as a business issue for companies worldwide in many industries.

One program, Goodweave, has established a certification system that works with retailers, rug importers and exporters, and looms to ensure that child labor is not used in carpet production. The program is active in the “carpet belt” of India and Nepal, and recently was extended into Afghanistan.

The program provides educational transition programs and works with schools to ensure children found working receive the assistance and support they need to go to school.

Through its Global Labor Program, USAID has helped workers in the rubber sector in Liberia to organize, mobilize and negotiate with their employer to end exploitative wage practices that compelled rubber tappers to bring their children to work, according to Athreya.

“Today, thanks to the combination of effective awareness-raising, campaigning in the United States and the work of trade unions in Liberia to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, there is a school on the rubber plantation where all children attend school while their parents, the adult workers, are paid a living wage.”

In addition, USAID’s Education Strategy is increasing access to education for children worldwide, particularly for those in crisis and conflict environments.

One USAID-supported initiative, Room to Learn, aims to provide universal, compulsory access to education in Haiti. USAID works closely with the government of Haiti to build up the education system and provide safe, equitable education to children.

“As we learn more and more about the root causes of child labor, we also are moving further back toward addressing those causes and preventing child labor from taking place at all,” Athreya writes.

The International Labour Organization launched World Day Against Child Labour in 2002. Each year on June 12, governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations, civil society and millions of people from around the world join in highlighting the plight of child laborers and what can be done to help them.

The 2014 theme is “Social Protection: Keeping Children Out of Work,” which builds on the 2013 World Report on Child Labour (PDF 1.42 MB).