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AFL-CIO Says 100 Mill. Girls Worldwide Forced to Give Up School

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Around the globe, workers and human rights activists are spending World Day Against Child Labor by focusing on this year’s goal: Give Girls a Chance. Of the estimated 218 million children who work worldwide, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 100 million are girls. More than half of those girls work in hazardous jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, domestic services and commercial sexual exploitation.

Workers from Albania to Bangladesh will hold rallies, seminars and exhibits to mark the day and increase awareness of the plight of the world’s children. Click here for a list of events around the world.

The ILO says the global economic crisis could lead to an increase in the number of children, especially girls, who are forced to give up school and go to work to support their families. The ILO’s new report, “Give Girls a Chance: Tackling Child Labor,” found that the combination of poverty and the tendency to place a higher value on the education of male children will result in many families in poor countries taking girls out of school and forcing them to enter the workforce.

Child labor is not only a problem outside the United States. Reid Maki, director of the National Consumers League’s Child Labor Coalition, points out that between 400,000 and 500,000 migrant children work right here in the United States, harvesting our food for pennies a day.

In advance of the World Day Against Child Labor, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis hosted a June 10 roundtable on child labor to discuss strategies to combine efforts of government, business, non-government organizations and unions to eradicate child labor.

Kou Solomon, a former “lost boy” of Sudan and now student at the University of Minnesota who took part in the roundtable, shared his first-hand experiences to show why fighting child labor is so important. Solomon was abducted at age six and spent a decade as a child soldier, forced laborer and refugee before escaping to Kenya and later to the United States. He has launched a campaign to save his two young nieces, who were abducted in 2007.

No child should ever go through what I saw as a child. You can help by letting the world know what is happening and advocating for change.

Opening the roundtable discussion, the first in more than a decade at the U.S. Department of Labor that actually involved workers, Solis reaffirmed the Obama administration’s commitment to assist vulnerable children worldwide.

Many challenges remain in the fight against child labor, but the department is committed to raising awareness, improving the quality and access to education, and building the capacity of governments and civil society organizations to address the issues of children in need. This year’s World Day calls for us to focus our attention on the special circumstances and needs of girls who are being used as child laborers.

Solis announced that the Labor Department, which already funds 220 anti-child labor projects in 82 countries, will provide more than $60 million for programs to address exploitative child labor. These programs will provide education and vocational training to children and help their parents find alternatives to child labor.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a longtime crusader against child labor who took part in the roundtable, pointed out that while girls often perform the same work as boys, we need to pay special attention to the trafficking of girls for prostitution and domestic service. The dire circumstances of the global economic crisis create a fertile ground for even more exploitation of children, Harkin warned, saying:

Desperate situations force desperate measures, including an increase in child labor. [Progress] is sometimes slow, but we can’t let up.

Widespread adult unemployment, poverty, lack of independent unions and poor education combine to make children vulnerable to forced labor, says Tim Ryan of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center. He outlined a program the center is conducting along with the human rights group, Save the Children, in the mining industry of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The program enables children to leave the mines and attend school.

According to the ILO report, the worst forms of child labor include those jobs that are extremely hazardous; jobs that involve physical, emotional and sexual abuse; practices similar to slavery such as debt bondage or forced labor; and domestic labor into which a child has been trafficked.

The ILO report warned that the work of girls is “often hidden,” with girls more likely to be engaged in domestic work, small-scale agriculture, and home-based workshops outside the notice of authorities. In addition, girls often carry the double burden of working outside the house as well as carrying out household chores within the family.

Nearly two-thirds of working girls between five and 14 years old are engaged in agricultural work, ILO added, one of the three most dangerous sectors in terms of job-related deaths, accidents and occupational illnesses. Click here to read the full ILO report.

Many of the speakers at the Labor Department roundtable also emphasized the importance of education to lift the girls out of poverty and provide a stronger economy for their countries. Tina Tchen, executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, reiterated President Obama’s assertion in his recent speech in Cairo, Egypt, that educating girls is crucial to rebuilding economic health around the world. The fact that 96 million women are illiterate is absolutely unacceptable in today’s economic climate, she said.

Derrick Figures, a legislative representative for AFT, added that eliminating child labor ultimately will require a combination of international solidarity for reform and the support of local communities where the labor takes place. He said too often the local communities are left out of the campaigns against child labor.

Child labor is not only a problem in developing countries, said Brian Campbell, a staff attorney with the Forum. Consumers in the United States and the developed world contribute by buying products produce by children in sweatshop factories around the world. He called for independent standards that consumers can use to determine where products are made so they can not buy child-produced items and, as a result, drive down the demand for their labor.

This year’s World Day also marks the 10th anniversary of the adoption of ILO Convention 182, which commits member countries to combat the worst forms of child labor. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and union leaders from around the world will join Harkin and ILO leaders in Geneva to commemorate the anniversary.


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