We made some landmark victories in 2015. Read our annual report to know how we made a difference.
In recent years, those concerned with the issues of trafficking, forced labour and slavery…
Around the world 535 million children are living in countries affected by conflicts and disasters.
Across the world, millions of children do extremely hazardous work in harmful conditions, that prevents them from getting education and is harmful to their physical, mental, or social development. Every day, an estimated 168 million boys and girls work as child labourers, in the farms, fields, factories, homes, streets and battlefields. They face hunger, hard work, ill-health and poverty. Of this total, a staggering 85 million are engaged in hazardous work, which is illegal. Hazardous child labour means working in dangerous industries or in workplaces, where children are likely to meet exploitative situations by nature or circumstances of work. Some examples of hazardous working conditions are working in mines or with chemical and pesticides in agriculture. The term ’child labour’ is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, right to free existence and work which harm their physical and mental development. It refers to work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children and interferes with their schooling by
- depriving them of the opportunity to attend school;
- obliging them to leave school prematurely; or
- requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.
In its most extreme forms, child labour involves children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities often at a very early age. Whether or not particular forms of ‘work’ can be called as ’child labour’ depends on the child’s age, the type and hours of work performed, the conditions under which it is performed and the objectives pursued by individual countries. The answer varies from country to country, as well as among sectors within countries.
According to International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 182, “the worst forms of child labour” include:
- All forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom, and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;
- The use, procuring, or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography, or for pornographic performances;
- The use, procuring, or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties;
- Work which, by its nature or circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.
At least 2 million children are trafficked annually for child labour and sexual exploitation. Most child labourers are in the informal economic sector, where they are not protected by laws and regulations. The worst forms of child labour are illegal and must be eradicated immediately.
(Missing from the available reports is any reference to child lablor in the US itself.)
In 2015, the Democratic Republic of the Congo made a moderate advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. The Government took steps to implement a UN-backed action plan to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers, including by arresting Force de Résistance Patriotique en Ituri leader Cobra Matata for use of child soldiers and launching the Reinsertion and Reintegration Project. The National Labor Council also approved the National Action Plan to Combat the Worst Forms of Child Labor, originally drafted in 2011, and submitted it to the Cabinet for approval and adoption. However, children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to engage in the worst forms of child labor, including in the mining of gold, cassiterite (tin ore), coltan (tantalum ore), and wolframite (tungsten ore), and are used in armed conflict, sometimes as a result of forcible recruitment or abduction by non-state armed groups. The prescribed penalties for forced or compulsory labor remain low and do not serve as deterrents. Decentralization, a lack of resources, and poor coordination have hampered the Government’s efforts to combat child labor, and laws mandating free primary education are not enforced.
How Common Is Child Labor in the U.S.?
Budgets for agencies that monitor workplaces are shrinking as some states roll back laws meant to limit the hours and jobs kids can work.
He saw something surprising: a boy, who appeared to be about 12 or 13, wearing jeans and a fluorescent work vest, smoothing mortar on a brick wall. It was a clear violation of child-labor laws, which prohibit 12 and 13-year-olds from working most jobs, except on farms, and also say that youths aged 14 and 15 may not work in hazardous jobs, including construction.
When others in the Laborers Union went to the site, they saw a boy too, this time driving a bobcat and cutting concrete with a saw.
“When our staff reported it to me, I wasn’t sure I believed it,” said Kevin Pranis, a spokesman for the union. “We sent him back to take a picture, since we didn’t want to make a report without knowing for sure the kid was underage. We observed him four or five times until we were really sure.”
But a few weeks later, the union stumbled across another kid on a construction site, this time in Minnetonka. Though the contractor at the time said the worker was 18, and that his father owned the company, the union followed-up by tracing the license plate of the car the worker got into, and found he was actually 14.
“No one’s going around looking for child labor on construction sites, except for us,” Pranis said. “The resources just aren’t there.”
It’s possible to view this merely as a ploy by a union to highlight the problems that occur on non-union construction sites. But the fact is, child-labor standards—and labor-enforcement standards in general—have been rolled back in many states over the past few years. And with budget cuts to the agencies, at both the federal and state level, in charge of enforcing labor laws, there’s no sign that there will be more attention to possible violations anytime soon.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA, had fewer health and safety inspectors in 2011 than in 1981, even though there are now twice as many workplaces, according to a report from the Center for Effective Government (OSHA is responsible for conducting workplace inspections and following-up on complaints about labor violations, including child-labor laws).
In February, a whistle-blower group in Washington said that workers in California have less protection on the job now than at any time in a generation because of cutbacks to Cal/OSHA. The state had 11 percent fewer inspectors last year than it did in 2011.
“We are concerned—having less budget means they have less ability to protect workers,” Weatherford said. “We’re going to see more injuries and fatalities if we don’t raise the number of inspectors.”
The child-labor violations the agency has turned up in the last few years, despite its smaller budget, raise the question of what else is happening that the agency hasn’t uncovered. Last year, inspectors found that a Tennessee lumber mill was employing a 14-year-old who was operating a chainsaw, removing lumber from a conveyor, and loading scrap wood into a wood chipper. Inspectors also found that grocery stores in Iowa and Nebraska had employed young workers operating meat slicers, bakery machines, and even motor vehicles.
“State legislators across the country have launched an unprecedented series of initiatives aimed at lowering labor standards, weakening unions, and eroding workplace protections for both union and non-union workers,” said Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon, in a report “The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards” he wrote for the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
Lafer attributed the passage of some of the laws to the dramatic changes in manystate legislatures after the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans gained unprecedented control at the state level. In that election, 22 legislatures changed majority control, all to the GOP.
Soon after the 2010 midterms, the changes began. A Missouri elected official had called in 2011 for the elimination of funding for the state’s nine labor investigators, saying that he’d heard they were “harassing and picking on” non-union contractors. By 2014, the state had just six investigators.
After the 2010 midterms, four states rolled back child-labor regulations, according to Lafer.
After a parent protested, an Idaho school district stopped a program that allowed children to work serving lunch in schools. Then the state passed a bill allowing students 12 and above to be employed by school districts for up to 10 hours per week.
Soon after that, Wisconsin lifted restrictions on the number of hours 16 and 17-year-olds could work during a school week—previously they couldn’t work more than 26 hours, now they can work unlimited hours, as long as they go to school, too. Michigan also increased the number of hours students could work during the school week, to 24 from 15.
Maine also upped the number of hours a minor could work each week—to 24 from 20. The bill’s backers had wanted students to be able to work until 11 p.m. on school nights, but in a compromise, the legislation set the curfew at 10:15 p.m.
Republicans gained even more seats in the 2014 midterms, winning majorities in various chambers in Nevada, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, New Mexico, Maine, and Minnesota, indicating that rollbacks of labor standards could continue.
Maine Governor Paul LePage already said earlier this year that he wanted the state to go even further and allow 12-year-olds to work. He had previously proposed a subminimum wage for young workers of $5.25.
A law went into effect in August in Minnesota creating a youth wage of $6.50 an hour for workers under 18 (there had previously not been a separate youth wage).
But what’s concerning about recent developments is that some of today’s working minors don’t seem to be performing innocuous jobs that will instill in them a strong work ethic and understanding of responsibility. Rather, they’re in jobs that can—and have—jeopardized their health and safety.
For example, agricultural employers are largely exempt from the sections of the Fair Labor Standards Act that prohibit minors from working. That’s led to 13-year-olds working in tobacco fields, where they can be exposed to nicotine poisoning.
A Human Rights Watch report published earlier this year found that in states such as Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, child workers spend 50 to 60 hours a week in tobacco fields, where they are “exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, and other dangers.”
The group interviewed 141 child tobacco workers between the ages of 7 and 17, and 75 percent of the children said they had sudden onset of nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, and difficulty breathing while working in the fields.
Many countries, including Brazil and India, prohibit children under 18 from working in the tobacco fields, according to the report. In 1999, the U.S. ratified a International Labor Organization Convention Covering the Prohibition and Immediate Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor, which included prohibiting children under 18 from work that “is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.”
In 2011, Hilda Solis, then the Secretary of Labor, proposed prohibiting farmworkers under 16 from working in the tobacco fields. She also suggested strengthening child-labor laws around agricultural work with animals, pesticides, timber, manure pits, and storage bins (two teenagers died in 2010 after being trapped in a grain bin).
The reaction was swift, with complaints about what happens when “big-city bureaucrats try to craft policies for rural America.” Some farmers protested that it would keep their kids from doing chores around the farm (Solis also suggested an exemption for children of farmers).
State legislatures across the country introduced bills asking their Congressional delegations to oppose changes to the child-labor exemptions.
The Obama Administration scrapped the proposed rules in 2012.
Child labor on farms helps fuel a cycle of poverty where kids drop out of school or perform poorly so that they can work as many hours as possible, he said. Accidents on farms can be particularly grisly: Last year, one teen lost his arm to a farm machine in Virginia, and a 14-year-old worker was killed in a collision with farming equipment in Idaho, according to Cultivate Safety, an advocacy group.
Going forward, whether people under age 18 are allowed to work in various jobs will probably depend on what state they live in. Missouri passed a law last year exempting children under 16 who work on farms from certain labor requirements—just in case the federal government tries to pass new standards again. Alabama tried to pass an income-tax credit for businesses employing people under 19; Iowa introduced a bill allowing people aged 16-17 to work in laundry establishments (previously they had been prohibited).
New York, on the other hand, passed a bill increasing protections for child models. And in October, a North Carolina Tobacco Growers Association issued a policy suggesting that tobacco farmers not hire children under 16, even with parental permission. Altria Group, parent company to Philip Morris USA, also said on Thursday that it would prohibit growers in its supply chain from hiring children under 16. About 90 percent of tobacco grown in the U.S. is farmed in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.
But evidence shows that once employers feel they have leeway in employing children, they start to flaunt more laws, said Maki, of the Consumer’s League.
“Our feeling is that there has got to be a certain level of enforcement for employers to really pay attention,” he said. “Once they get a sense that the laws aren’t being enforced at all, it’s like a carte blanche.”