The number of child workers across the world now stands at 168 million, a one-third drop since 2000. This is both encouraging and worrying. It is encouraging because 11 year-old boys have been rescued from being child soldiers in Myanmar, girls in Malawi no longer work from dawn till late at night doing domestic chores and can now attend school, and children forced to beg in Romania are now safe in rehabilitation centres.
But it is worrying because 168 million is still a very large number. If all the child workers were grouped in a single country, this would be the world's eighth most populous country, more populous than Bangladesh or Russia. Even with the progress of recent years, the world will not, at the present rate meet the target to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by 2016, which was agreed by the international community in 2010 in The Hague.
According to the latest global estimates from the International Labour Organization, there are 85 million five to 17-year olds around the world doing work that directly endangers their health, safety and development. The vast majority work in agriculture but they are present in other sectors too, working in mines, being trafficked or abused in the sex trade, made to beg, exploited in domestic work, forced to join militias or armies. Just under half of child workers are between 5 and 11 years of age and most are boys (although the figures may underestimate the involvement of girls in less visible forms of work such as domestic work). Asia-Pacific has the most child workers (78 million) and sub-Saharan African has the highest incidence of child labour (21 million). But this is not a poor or developing country problem: there are child workers too in rich countries, including the US and Western Europe.
Child labour is a global problem that needs a response from all sides. This means measures to help reduce poverty, improve education, enforce laws, improve employment prospects for adults and ensure there are no benefits in employing children under working age.
With the right policy choices and technical cooperation and donor support where necessary, child labour can be tackled. Take Malawi, one the world's poorest countries where about thirty per cent of children aged 5-15 are trapped in child labour. Children like eight-year old Ethel, who has to miss school to help her parents pick the tobacco harvest, and suffers from headaches and stomach pains.
Malawi has a national action plan combining a monitoring system, investment in infrastructure and community involvement, from district child labour officials with the power to inspect farm fields and arrest landowners who exploit children to traditional chiefs who promote the eradication of child labour. The plan has been funded by the US Department of Labour since 2009 and has already freed 5,500 child workers.
And yet, even as we need to redouble efforts, countries may feel less encouraged to fund programmes to combat child labour precisely because numbers are dropping.
As dozens of countries gather today in the Brazilian capital, Brasília, at the third global conference on child labour, they have a unique opportunity to show what determined international effort and national political will can achieve. They must renew their commitment to rid the world of the worst forms of child labour by 2016, and to eliminate it completely by 2020. There are 168 million reasons to do so.