WASHINGTON — An International Labor Organization report released Thursday found an 11 percent drop in child labor worldwide from 2001 through 2004, prompting the group to declare that the worst forms of practice could be eliminated in a decade.
“The end of child labor is within our reach,” Juan Somavia, director-general of the ILO, said in a statement. “Though the fight against child labor remains a daunting challenge, we are on the right track.”
In the report, “The End of Child Labor: Within Reach,” the ILO attributed the drop to increased political will and awareness, as well as efforts to reduce poverty and improve access to education. There were 218 million child laborers in 2004, a drop of 28 million from 2000. About 70 percent of child laborers work in agriculture, while manufacturing, including apparel and textile production, accounts for 5 to 7 percent of the problem, said Geir Myrstad, head of the ILO’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor.
The ILO generally defines child labor as work that prevents children under 15 from attending and participating effectively in school or is performed by children under hazardous conditions that place their healthy physical, intellectual, or moral development at risk.
Though a smaller part of the overall problem, child labor has played a role in apparel production over the years. Under threat of trade sanctions, Bangladesh in 1993 dismissed as many as 50,000 child laborers, prompting the ILO and other organizations to rush to get them into educational programs.
“If we can do this in one of the poorest nations on the globe, in Bangladesh, if we can get young girls out of the garment industry and into schools and get them educated, we can do it anywhere,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), during a Capitol Hill press conference on the ILO’s report.
Kari Tapiola, ILO executive director, at a press conference in Geneva, where the 178-member-country organization is based, commented on the issues of consumer boycotts against countries or companies found using child labor and whether the ILO supported devising a label signifying that no child labor had been used in manufacturing a certain product.
“We would not take a stand on any campaign,” Tapiola said. “We would rather say let’s concentrate on trying to solve the issue, so the campaigns … would not be necessary.”
Tapiola said the ILO is often asked but has said it was not possible to create a labeling program — which some poor countries view as discriminatory, but many civil rights groups advocate — that designates a product was produced without child labor.
“Labels present a problem in that it’s difficult to verify,” he said. “Labels can be forged. It’s difficult to make sure that there is really an objective basis for these labels. What we can do is work with the producers, with the companies, we can explain the standards, what kind of conditions are acceptable, what conditions are not acceptable, but we cannot go into the certification business.”