News & Commentary

Catholic groups call for more action as 1 in 10 children remain trapped in child labor

(OSV News) — Nearly one in 10 children are forced into child labor globally, with some compelled into hazardous work through trafficking. On June 12, humanitarian institutions and the international community — including Catholic organizations — mark the World Day Against Child Labor, in an effort to bring attention to the extent of the issue and the efforts necessary to eliminate it.

Observed since 2002, the World Day Against Child Labor has as its theme for 2024, “Let’s act on our commitments: End Child Labor!”

It also marks the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 182, on the Worst Forms of Child Labor (1999). In 2020, it was the first such convention to be universally ratified.

With the ILO convention, “the world made a solemn commitment to take immediate and effective steps to end the worst forms child labor,” said ILO Senior Child Labor Specialist Benjamin Smith. This “includes slavery and similar practices, the commercial sexual exploitation, the use of children in illicit activities like drug trafficking, and hazardous work that affects their health and safety.”

UNICEF reports that roughly 160 million children — one in 10 children globally — were subjected to child labor at the beginning of 2020, including 63 million girls and 97 million boys. In the world’s poorest countries, UNICEF reports slightly more than one in five children ages 5-17 are engaged in child labor, meaning “when they are either too young to work or are involved in hazardous activities that may compromise their physical, mental, social or educational development.”

“There has been important progress,” Smith told OSV News, while acknowledging “we still have a long way to go.”

“We know what works against child labor,” Smith said. “Promoting decent work for parents so they can afford to send their children to school, not work; universal good quality education; universal social protection; and a strong legal framework based on ILO Conventions.”

He emphasized, “What is urgently needed is to scale up these solutions.”

Lucy Steinitz, senior technical adviser for protection at Catholic Relief Services, the global humanitarian arm of the Catholic Church in the U.S., told OSV News the experience of child labor “is cruel, because it cuts off the child’s future — but it’s not necessarily done out of cruelty. It’s done out of necessity; it could be divided families, one parent could have died or it was a single-parent family to begin with,” Steinitz said. “And then if there’s an illness in the family — either with the breadwinner or increased demands because of other illnesses — children are most often forced to work.”

While CRS doesn’t operate specialized child labor prevention programs, none of its work is done without incorporating child labor safeguards and protections.

Local culture, customs and laws also vary, Steinitz noted.

“In each country there’s a different age by which children can start working,” she said. “And some housework and some field work, voluntary labor by children, is not child labor per se; it’s chores — but they’ll be more significant in lower income families, of course.”

Nonetheless, access to schooling must be protected.

“Our position is, as long as the child is able to go to school on a regular basis and has time for homework as required — and within the laws of the land — that’s our goal,” Steinitz affirmed.

Steinitz finds herself concerned for the future — particularly as changing climates, such as the drought she sees where she is in Zimbabwe, devastates the livelihoods of families who may depend on just “a couple of goats or even a cow.”

“My fear is it’s going to get worse,” she said.

But child labor also is growing in the U.S., with the Catholic Labor Network expressing deep concern over a “trend” of state legislatures’ loosening restrictions on child labor laws.

“While teens may benefit from some work experience, many of the current moves to loosen legal restrictions on child labor make children eligible to work in dangerous adult jobs like construction or during hours that will compromise their schooling,” Clayton Sinyai, CLN executive director, told OSV News. “And repeated investigations have shown that it is the children of immigrants and low-income families who are pressured to accept hazardous employment.”

In 2023, the Labor Department found 5,800 children employed in violation of child labor laws, an 88% increase since 2019. Of the 955 child labor cases completed by federal regulators in 2023, over 50% involved minors employed in violation of hazardous occupation laws.

Pope Francis — in 2022 addressing the 5th Conference on the Elimination of Child Labor — lamented that “too many small hands are busy plowing fields, working in mines, traveling great distances to draw water and doing work that prevents them from attending school.”

“The way we relate to children, the extent to which we respect their innate human dignity and fundamental rights, expresses what kind of adults we are and want to be, and what kind of society we want to build,” he said.

Father Mike Conway, executive director of Salesian Missions, echoes Pope Francis’ concerns.

“Young people, first and foremost, need to be young people. They have to have the opportunity to be able to be kids, and to enjoy themselves,” the Salesian priest said. “But then, they also need to be able to have an education that can provide for them in the future, and the skills that they would need to be successful.”

The Salesians operate programs where they work in over 130 countries that serve young people who might not be able to access them otherwise. In Bolivia, students learn computer skills; in India, migrant children are assisted with education, health care and social integration; in Nicaragua, children receive school scholarships.

The mission of the U.S.-based nonprofit Catholic organization — composed of priests, brothers and sisters, as well as laypeople — is to raise funds for international programs serving youth and families in poor communities around the globe.

“I’m an educator, first and foremost,” Father Conway said. “For me, the only way to break the cycle of poverty is by providing a good education to young people — to give them not just the knowledge, but also the skills, to be able to be successful in the future and to be able to provide for themselves and their family.”

In that way, Father Conway follows in the steps of the Salesians’ founder, St. John Bosco, a 19th-century Italian Catholic priest, educator, and writer.

“St. John Bosco began his work in Turin,” explained Father Conway, “literally walking along the streets of Turin finding young people who were employed by bricklayers or in construction — kids who really didn’t have any skills but who were forced to work in such situations because they came from farms outside the city, looking for an opportunity to help their families.”

An on-the-ground presence helps the Salesians build strong partnerships, particularly with local authorities.

“The more that we can convince them what we do and what we have to offer does make a difference in a positive way, the more they’re willing to be able to collaborate with us as well,” he said.

Father Conway told OSV News that to combat child labor, awareness of its reality is essential.

“Whether it’s here in the United States; or whether it’s in Central America; or Asia or Africa,” he said, “each particular continent, each particular country, has situations that contribute to child labor today.”

By Kimberley Heatherington | OSV News