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15 OCT 2013 – 6:56PM
Moves are underway in some of the poorest countries to ensure children have alternatives to hard labour.
15 OCT 2013 – 3:16 PM UPDATED 15 OCT 2013 – 6:56 PM
(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)
Millions of children still toil in factories, mines and fields in the developing world despite international efforts to eradicate the problem.
And it's Western consumers, as well as retailers, who activists say should shoulder the blame.
But as Kerri Worthington reports, moves are underway in some of the poorest countries to ensure children have alternatives to hard labour.
(Click on audio tab above to listen to this item)
International charities, among them World Vision, are campaigning to end child labour, which they say deprives children of their childhood and their potential.
World Vision defines child labour as work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children, and work that interferes with their schooling.
The International Labor Organisation said in a recent report* that the global number of child labourers has declined by one-third since 2000, and targets to eliminate child labour are on track.
But Melissa Stewart, World Vision Australia's senior adviser for child protection and trafficking in persons, says child labour is still a massive global problem.
Ms Stewart says a lot of child labour is in the informal economy in marginalised communities, so it's hard to know full extent.
But she says more can be done to reduce the problem by educating first world consumers about the children who help produce their household goods.
She says Australians, for example, are unknowingly facilitating the exploitation of children down the supply chain with their high-volume purchases of computer equipment.
"So a lap top or our smart phones have a mineral called coltan it, and one of the suppliers of coltan is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there is a high incidence of child labour in the mining of coltan. While it's very difficult to ascertain where it all ends up, I think it is safe to say that because we don't know we all could be liable for having an unsavoury footprint on this whole manner."
Mining is one of the most dangerous sectors in which children work, and in some parts of the world work in large numbers.
Child labour is used for mining coal, salt and diamonds across Asia, South America and Africa.
Gold mining has come into focus recently as having a particularly severe impact on children.
Human Rights Watch has produced a report showing children as young as eight years old are working in small mines in Tanzania, Africa's fourth-largest gold producer.
Janine Morna, a researcher with the US-based organisation says children are at risk of short-term and long-term injury.
"Children work in deep pits, some up to 70 metres deep. In addition very deep down in the pits toxic gas is released by various pumps and machines that are used to keep the water out. Mining is one of the most hazardous forms of child labour. It is prohibited under international law, and the Tanzanian government has strong laws preventing children from going into the mines. However, it hasn't done enough to put these laws into practice. Children in particular aren't able to manage with the heavy loads and the use of heavy machinery that is required for mining."
Many other countries with large numbers of child labourers also have strong laws against employing minors, that are largely ignored by employers.
In Bangladesh, the law allows children to work from the age of 14.
But the garment industry, under the international spotlight for its dangerous conditions and low wages, has instigated its own initiative of officially banning anyone aged under 18 from working in factories which make clothes for export.
A BBC investigation has found the official position does not reflect reality.
Rouma is a 13-year-old girl whose mother was seriously injured in the Rana Plaza collapse earlier this year that killed more than a thousand garment workers.
She's been forced to work in a garment factory herself to help support her family.
"My mother is very sick so I had no other options but to go there. (Bengali) I feel tired and, you know, I have to work every day. They say that if I do not do overtime they'll not pay me."
Rouma has told the BBC she is not the only child working illegally in the sector.
"There are lots of teenagers like me working in the factory and he (owner) says that if someone comes to visit our factory then you must tell them that you are 18. I don't know if it's right or wrong because some families have several problems and I also have problems in my family so I have no other options but to go there. It is very hard for me, I cannot do a 12 hour shift every day."
In neighbouring India, activists say children from poorer families face hardships which few in the West can even fathom.
Soha Moitra from the organisation Child Rights and You says it's not unusual for children to be forced forced to work and beaten while they do it.
"About 11 million children are street children in India, which is the highest number in the world. And about 28 million children are engaged in child labour. So the gravity of the problem is huge and the measures are really abysmal."
World Vision Australia's senior adviser for child protection, Melissa Stewart, says governments need to do more than give lip service to outlawing child labour.
"Not only do we need to adopt legislation but we also need to allocate adequate financial and human resources in national budgets to ensure these things happen. And also to start addressing societal attitudes and contexts that allow these situations to occur. Laws and policies in and of themselves do not make change and we need to ensure that there is implementation of these laws and policies supported by adequate budgets."
The United Nations cautions that not all work done by children should be classified as child labour that is to be targeted for elimination.
The international body says children's participation in work that does not affect their health and personal development or interfere with their education is generally regarded as being something positive.
Melissa Stewart says World Vision agrees that stopping all children from working is not the best goal.
"Evidence from our programming, for instance in South Asia, demonstrates that responses don't need to be immediate. And oftentimes to design specially tailored transitional programs to get children out of the work environment, accompanied with support for the family, can have transformative effects on communities, families and children who still do have to work but this allows them to provide pathways for these kids to remain in or return to mainstream education systems."
The ILO says it's been supporting one successful program to combat child labour in Malawi.
It involves monitoring rural villages to identify child labourers, and then gaining community support to provide them with access to education or training.
Teenager Alfred Kazakumanja was withdrawn from child labour and has told the ILO he's grateful to the chief of his village for the new skills he's picking up in carpentry.
"The chief was going around the community identifying children who should not have been working. He brought us here to learn job skills."
Another recipient of skills training under the Malawi program is Memory Kaziki Banda, who is learning tailoring and business skills.
"As you can see from my face, this project has made me very happy. This has really helped me and my friends. We can support ourselves because of the project."