11/13/2014 03:45 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

85 Million Children Work in Dangerous Conditions: Are Governments Fulfilling Their Promise to Prevent This?

Co-authored by Aleta Sprague and Nicolas de Guzman Chorny.

Mining is a notoriously dangerous job. Tunnels can collapse, explosions and falling rocks are common, and the air is often filled with dust or even toxic gases. While the world breathed a collective sigh of relief when the 33 Chilean miners were rescued in 2010, around 12,000 people die in similar accidents each year.

So why do we let so many children do it -- in 2014?

Mining falls squarely within the definition of "hazardous work," as defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO). According to the ILO, there are 168 million child laborers worldwide, including 85 million in jobs that directly endanger their health and safety. In countries around the world, kids work in gold mines, salt mines, and stone quarries -- while millions more toil in fields, factories, or construction sites.

As noted in the first post in our series last week, November 20th marks the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a landmark U.N. agreement that laid the foundation for strengthening children's rights around the world. Among other fundamental rights, the CRC recognizes "the right of the child to be protected...from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous" and explicitly calls on ratifying countries to take legislative measures to ensure implementation of these rights. Yet a quarter century later, how much progress has the world really made toward ending child labor and shielding children from dangerous work conditions?

As it turns out, while a majority of CRC States parties have passed legislation to prevent hazardous child labor, only 53 percent legally protect children from hazardous work in all circumstances. In nearly a quarter of States parties, the minimum age for hazardous work is under 18, while 2 percent haven't established a minimum age whatsoever. In an additional 21 percent of States parties, although the minimum age is 18, legal exceptions allow younger children to do hazardous work in certain circumstances.

And while the problem is particularly severe in lower-income countries, child labor remains a global phenomenon--especially in the agricultural sector. In the U.S. (one of only three countries that are not parties to the CRC), federal regulations include exceptions that allow children to perform agricultural work at any age, subject to some limitations on work during school hours. Even when not technically classified as "hazardous," agricultural work often involves direct contact with poisonous pesticides, strenuous work, and long hours under the sun.

Earlier this year, in a survey of child workers in U.S. tobacco fields ages seven to 17, Human Rights Watch found that most children worked 50-60 hours per week, while 66 percent reported symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of fatalities for children ages 15-17 engaged in agricultural work is 4.4 times higher compared to children working in other jobs. Yet despite these risks, legal loopholes mean millions of children labor in fields around the world.

The consequences of child labor last a lifetime. Whether the work is hazardous or not, evidence shows that child laborers tend to have poorer health and complete less education than children who do not work. A study conducted in Guatemala, for example, showed that having worked between the ages of six and 14 increased the probability of health problems as an adult by over 40 percent. Another study conducted in Vietnam showed that that the highest grade attained by working children was three grades lower than for children who did not work, even after controlling for family and regional characteristics.

Enacting laws that protect all children from performing hazardous work is a first step toward improving children's health and access to education. Yet full accountability for ending child labor and upholding children's other fundamental rights will also require participation from citizens to ensure adequate protections are both legislated and implemented. Citizens all over the world should have access to simple tools to monitor their countries' progress and pitfalls.

That's why in commemoration of the CRC's 25th anniversary, the WORLD Policy Analysis Center is releasing a series of maps, factsheets, and infographics that show where countries currently stand and what they could achieve. With this information, we hope to empower citizens all over the world to make change happen. Only when policymakers can identify viable solutions to eliminating child labor while supporting adequate family income, and citizens can access tools to hold their leaders accountable for commitments made, will child labor truly become a relic of the past.

This blog post is the second of a four-part series from the WORLD Policy Analysis Center, presenting new data and examining progress toward securing children's rights around the world 25 years since the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted at the United Nations. Check out the first post here.