Occupational health

Hazardous child labour

In May 2002, the ILO issued a new Global report on Child labour that describes the extent of the problem. Almost 250 million children, about one in every six children aged 5 to 17 on the face of the globe, are involved in child labour. Of these, some 179 million (one in eight) are trapped in the “worst forms” of child labour. The worst form are those that endanger the child’s physical, mental or moral well-being.

Children can be found in almost any economic sector. However, at a global level, most of them are in agriculture (70%). Some hazards in agriculture are the exposure to pesticides, the use of dangerous machinery or tools (like knives), carrying heavy loads, the presence of snakes, and so on. Children working in agriculture are the ones suffering most injuries. And one of the sad characteristics of child labour in agriculture are the few, if any opportunities for advance or change.

For children working as domestic labourers, the hazards are sometimes not that obvious. Here, it can be the psychological hazards, like isolation, abuse, exploitation that make this form dangerous. Domestic labour is often called “hidden” and it is often difficult to find those children. Other sectors where children are working (although not in large proportion) are mining (1%) and construction (2%). The work done is generally very dangerous for children.

Children are often “achievers”, they want to perform well, go that extra mile, and are inexperienced and untrained in dealing with hazards. Tools are not made for them, and thus pose more hazards. There are no personal protection devices for children. Additionally, they are also not organized and powerless. Girls are at special risk. They often begin to work at a younger age and have a double work burden (at home and in the fields). They frequently work longer hours, and in different cultural settings may get poorer nutrition.

Occupational hazards cause not only short-term health effects (mainly injuries, skin problems, etc), but most effects are long-term and will only become evident in adulthood. Therefore, they are difficult to measure and to quantify. Cancer, infertility, chronic backpain and IQ reduction are some of the expected long-term outcomes.

Health professionals are in a key position to identify children at risk, advise the parents on ways to reduce this risk and recommend action to policy-makers. They should be able to recognize and assess the occupational and environmental health threats present in the places where children live, learn and play, and work, in the urban and rural communities. They should also know that these threats increase in low-income populations and minority communities, and in degraded environments. In combating hazardous child labour the most important challenge is the translation of knowledge and legislation into action, moving good intention and ideas into protecting the health of the children. For this, the involvement of the relevant stakeholders like health and safety experts ( they know about hazards and health outcomes), labour inspectors (they know how to enforce the law) and general health experts (they know about the vulnerability and health outcomes in the child and are the first-line care givers), is absolutely essential.

The elimination of child labour is a long-term objective. However, in the meanwhile, we cannot allow that children are injured or harmed at work in their struggle for survival, especially when we have the knowledge and means to prevent this.

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