Durban — Tara Banjara was four and a half years old when her parents put her to work on the roads, cleaning the garbage and rubble out of potholes to prepare for construction in Nemdi village, Rajasthan, India. She worked in the wind, cold, and rain with her mother, day in and day out, year in and year out. She would return home shattered, too exhausted to eat before falling asleep each night.
“In my family, there was no food. We weren’t even able to get two meals a day, so my parents decided to take me to work because I was the oldest of my siblings. I worked with my mother cleaning dangerous roads every day. I was always worried about the cars coming. I was not happy and got used to feeling tired. I was not aware of whether child labor was right or wrong,” Banjara, 17, a child labor survivor advocate, told IPS during an interview on the sidelines of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labor in Durban, South Africa on Monday.
Banjara was just one of the scores of children in her village, and millions entrapped in child labor working in mines, on farms, in factories, and homes, globally.
According to the ILO and the United Nations Children’s Fund’s latest statistics, 160 million children, equating to one in ten of all children, are engaged in child labor worldwide. In recent years, child labor has grown, particularly in the 5 to 11-year-old age group.
Banjara called on delegates during a high-level panel discussion on how to accelerate progress and achieve impact at scale to eradicate child labor, to stand up and take a pledge to end the practice globally in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 8.7.
Tanzila Narbaeva, chair of the Uzbekistan Senate, outlined how her country had already eradicated child labor through the adoption of the ILO Conventions on child labor, Convention No.138 on Minimum Age and Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor by 2020. She said Uzbekistan had a “strong political will” to fight the scourge and had enacted 32 legal and regulatory instruments and conventions against child labor. The government and ILO had undertaken diligent monitoring of farms and businesses.
“We tightened criminal liability for the employment of child labor, and that has become one of the most effective measures. International cooperation plays a central role, and the ILO has been supporting Uzbekistan for more than ten years to implement measures and enforce social and labor relations in the country,” Narbaeva said.
She said the mechanization of agricultural work and the raising of raw cotton prices ten-fold compared to 2014 had also played a role in eradicating child labor. Uzbekistan then signed a new Decent Work Country Program to promote decent work and labor protection with the ILO in 2021.
“Trade unions were the initiating force, but later the government and civil society got involved in this work,” Narbaeva said.
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which worked with the government of Uzbekistan, lambasted the lack of progress in eradicating child labor globally.
“It has to be one of the most serious global scandals that we have not eliminated child labor. Do we have labor that is regulated and secure where parents/adults can work with dignity so they don’t have to depend on the money their children can make? More than 60 percent of the world’s workers are working informally, and that includes all sectors, including our internet-mediated businesses, which mean there are no rights, no social protection, and no rule of law,” Burrow said.
“When you can’t live on the informal work that you do, parents who are desperate to feed their family will allow opportunities for their children to work,” she added.
She said living wages and universal social protection were needed to clean up the desperation of the informal labor market and help parents to make different choices.
“This has to be supported by investment in quality public education that is accessible to all people. We know what the answers are, but the real question is whether there is political will like Uzbekistan has demonstrated, to eliminate child labor and to formalize informal work,” Burrow said.
She said South Africa had shown that informal work could be formalized through legislation in its domestic labor sector. She said treaties and laws on human rights and modern slavery needed to be enforced, and legislation was required to hold governments and businesses accountable to stop the scourge.
ILO director-general Guy Ryder said civil society and governments needed to come together to eradicate the practice.
“We know education matters. We know social protection matters. We know formalization of the informal economy matters, and we know that creating decent work for adults matters. These are the four pillars we need to work on,” Ryder said.
He said political will had to be translated into societal decision-making.
“Society has to come together and say ‘child labor is intolerable. We have to get rid of it,” he said.
For Banjara, getting rid of child labor has led to her eyes being opened to the reality of education and a career as a policewoman because she wants to impact the lives of other children.
An activist from Bal Ashram Trust, an initiative of Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, rescued Banjara at the age of eight from her life of child labor.
“My eyes were opened. I didn’t know that there was such a thing as education. But my parents didn’t want me to go to school. Even though the activists would go to them, they would say, ‘no, she will not come’. I convinced my parents. I gave up food. I went on a hunger strike and was sad all the time to make them aware,” Banjara said.
Eventually, her parents relented, and Banjara went to school and completed grade 12 of high school before enrolling for a BA degree at university. She hopes to make a difference at grassroots when she qualifies as a policewoman.
“Just because we are children born to poor families, who do not have the right to vote, it doesn’t mean that we should be condemned to a life of child labor.”
This is one of a series of stories that IPS will publish during the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour in Durban, South Africa.
IPS UN Bureau Report