Reduce poverty to end families' reliance on child labour

Sally Ko says consumers in well-off societies can exercise ethical buying

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 June, 2014, 4:12am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 June, 2014, 4:12am

Today is World Day against Child Labour and, coincidentally, the official opening of the soccer World Cup. This global sports event instils a sense of excitement and solidarity around the world. Yet behind its glamorous façade lies the pain of exploited workers as unscrupulous employers seize the lucrative business opportunities that come along.

Until 2000, Pakistan was the leading football-producing country. But global concerns about child labour, national power shortages, and competition from China and Thailand have reduced the country's share considerably.

With intervention from the International Labour Organisation, child labour in the football industry in Sialkot, Pakistan, has reduced significantly since the late 1990s. An ILO survey in 1997 estimated that 7,000 children were working in football stitching, but according to Nasir Mahmood Dogar, chief executive of the Independent Monitoring Association for Child Labour, last year, only one child was found stitching footballs in a contractor's shop.

One of the determining factors of success has been the support of large buyers such as Nike and Adidas.

Unfortunately, as long as there is both demand for and supply of child labour, the problem will persist. Poverty plays a key role in driving children to work. In fact, some poor children are actually grateful for the work because it keeps them fed.

The latest ILO figures estimate that there are 168 million child labourers globally, with about 85 million engaged in some of the worst forms of work - including slavery, trafficking and debt bondage, prostitution and other hazardous work that puts children at risk of ill health, injury or even death.

Child labour hurts not just children but also the entire community. Kaushik Basu, chief economist for the World Bank, and Pham Hoang Van, of Baylor University in the US, suggest that participation in child labour depresses adult wages, which results in households relying on child labour to supplement the family income, thus creating a "child labour trap".

But they also suggest that parents will usually withdraw their children from the labour market once household income surpasses a certain level. This supports the assertion that not only does a reduction in child labour support an increase in adult wages, but higher adult wages can also result in a reduction in child labour.

Eradication of child labour requires a coordinated response. Apart from the effective enforcement of legislation and policy, it is also critical to improve the living and education of vulnerable children and their families.

We have launched projects in both developing and developed regions. For example, in Cambodia and India, rehabilitation of child labourers has included the provision of counselling, education, life skills and vocational training. Networks have been formed to raise awareness of the issue and promote child rights. And livelihood assistance has been provided in the form of microfinance services.

In developed regions such as Australia and Canada, we run campaigns against child labour and advocate fair trade.

In Hong Kong, although child labour is rare, the issue isn't really that far away. Just look to your morning coffee or tech gadgets to realise that exploitative labour may well have been involved in their production.

As consumers, one of the most direct and effective ways to help end child labour is to exercise our purchasing power wisely to ensure the items we buy are produced ethically.

Sally Ko is communications officer at World Vision Hong Kong