Child labour and youth unemployment pose dilemmas

As global youth unemployment hits record levels, adolescents are increasingly presented with a choice between undertaking hazardous work or no work at all.

Children in hazardous work, a report published by the International Labour Organization to coincide with yesterday’s World Day Against Child Labour, finds that 62 million youths aged 15-17 years were engaged in hazardous occupations during 2008. This figure represents about half of all employment undertaken by this age group.

Furthermore, this proportion of unacceptable work is rising sharply, up 20% since 2004. The ILO also warns that recent years of economic recession may have exerted further downward pressure on conditions experienced by young workers.

Produced by the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, the report draws evidence from a range of sectors, including agriculture, fishing, construction and mining, the latter regarded as posing the greatest risks. It observes that hazardous child labour is not confined to developing countries.

The biological metabolism of growing adolescents increases their vulnerability. For example, young people absorb toxic pollutants into their bloodstream at a greater rate than adults. They also need more sleep, rendering long working hours or night shifts a risk to normal development.

Permanent damage to health is acknowledged by international law to be an unacceptable price for finding a job. The 1999 ILO Convention 182 for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, of which hazardous work is part, commits countries to make plans for achieving this goal by 2016.

Including children aged under 15 years, the numbers in hazardous occupations in 2008 totalled 115 million. The Convention has been ratified by 173 out of 183 ILO member countries and the new report aims to revive the necessary sense of urgency amongst them.

On the day before Children in hazardous work was released, the ILO’s annual conference in Geneva conducted a high level debate on “Global Youth: Leading Change.” The focus was on 81 million in the 15-24 age group who are unemployed, the highest level ever recorded.

ILO Director-General, Juan Somavia, was scathing on claims by economists that a global recovery is under way. “There is no recovery if we lose a generation of young people,” he said. “It is an inefficient model of growth where young people are being squeezed out.”

By inviting a special panel of young speakers from Arab countries currently embroiled in constitutional upheaval, the conference made a pointed connection between youth unemployment and political protest.

In his report marking the 100th annual session of the International Labour Conference, Somavia writes: “youth unemployment is highest in the very regions where social unrest has recently erupted. It would be hard to consider this to be a coincidence.”

In proposing solutions to these closely related problems – the search for work by young people, and the conditions of work for those successful in finding it – the ILO adopts very different philosophies.

Children in hazardous work positions adolescent workers as passive victims of misfortune, in need of protection and support from governments, employers and their communities, responding to the paternal directive of Convention 182.

By contrast, the zeitgeist tone of the conference envisaged young people as masters of their own destiny, provoked by exclusion from global economic progress into dissent. High youth unemployment “demands a new era of peaceful social and popular mobilization that can project the voice and demands of people into the heart of political decision-making,” Somavia asserts in his report.

The authors of Children in hazardous work acknowledge the awkward dilemma between “those promoting work (youth employment programmes) and those trying to end it (child labour programmes).”

A repeated reflection at the ILO conference was that “older children have become the problem area.”


this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News