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World Day Against Child Labour: How ActionAid is Fighting Back on Child Labour

Mehuba is a return migrant worker from the Middle East and child labour survivor

In 2020, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that approximately 160 million children worldwide were trapped in child labour with 79 million of these performing hazardous forms of work. Unfortunately, although the world has committed to ending child labour, the report showed that global progress had stalled for the first time in 20 years and, without urgent mitigation measures, the Covid-19 pandemic was likely to make the situation worse.

Not all work done by children counts as child labour. Child labour is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity. It is work that is harmful to their physical and/or mental development or and or deprives them of their education. It can include work that separates them from their families, exposes them to serious hazards or illnesses and in some extreme forms, can include forms of slavery such as child trafficking, debt bondage, forced labour and child marriage. 

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest prevalence and largest number of children in child labour overall, an estimated 86.8 million children aged 5 to 17 are trapped in child labour with the majority working in agriculture (85%), services (20%) and industry (10%) sectors.

The global pandemic, combined with ongoing multiple crises, inadequate social protection measures and lack of access to critical public service such as education, have exacerbated the problem. 

Tackling Child Labour in Ghana and Ethiopia 

As part of the Norad-funded Combatting Modern Slavery project, ActionAid is working alongside key partners in Ethiopia and Ghana to tackle some of the worst forms of child labour.  

In Ghana the project is working with communities in the agricultural and fishing sectors to identify and prevent child labour. One approach has included the formation and training of groups of community activists known as ‘COMBATS’ who volunteer to prevent forms of modern slavery, including child labour, within their communities.  

By collaborating with these COMBATs as well as key government agencies, including the Social Welfare Department and the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit of the Ghana Police force, ActionAid Ghana has been working hard to identify, rescue, re-integrate and, where possible-return home survivors of human trafficking and child labour. 

Poverty and lack of access to education are widely cited as the main causes for child labour and modern slavery. Vulnerable families are often forced to make difficult decisions to provide their children with a better life.  

One such family trustingly sent their fourteen-year-old son, to live with an employer in another part of the country. The boy and his parents were under the impression that he would attend school whilst working as an apprentice welder. However, he ended up finding himself exploited, over-worked and neglected with no chance to go to school. Fortunately, a concerned citizen raised the alarm and the COMBATs, working together with the Social Welfare officers were able to re-unite him with his family. 

Further demonstrating the impact of the team’s work to raise awareness amongst communities and work in partnership with local government departments, a bus transporting five boys who were being trafficked to work on a marijuana farm was intercepted. The survivors are now being safely supported in a dedicated shelter where they can attend school and enjoy a life free from abuse. In addition, justice was done, and the trafficker was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.   In 2022, ActionAid Ghana and its partners have helped rescue, re-unite and re-integrate supported 34 survivors of human trafficking including eight child labour survivors.  

Girls are particularly vulnerable to child labour and forms of modern slavery, a factor that is further exacerbated by the lack of access to education and the perpetuation of harmful practices such as early or forced marriage.  

This is the reality for many girls in Ethiopia, such as child labour survivor, Mehuba who at age six was forced by her father to work on a farm for less than £1 a year.  Although Mehuba later did her best to get some basic education using her own savings and managed to resist her family’s pressure to marry early, life was so difficult that she eventually opted to travel to Saudi Arabia to find employment as a domestic worker.  

Unfortunately, her employers treated her like a slave, forcing her to sleep on cold floor tiles and paying her a pittance. After a year Mehuba’s arms and legs were paralysed and as she could no longer work, she had to return to Ethiopia empty-handed. 

Now, 33 and a single parent to two young children, Mehuba is one of over 600 women being supported by ActionAid Ethiopia to develop the skills and knowledge they need to find decent work opportunities and support themselves without leaving the country. 

Thanks to the business skills training and a seed grant of 10,000 Birr (£147) Mehuba’s new spice business is now growing, and she has even created job opportunities for other women in her community. Her hope for the future is that her children should never have to experience the hardships and neglect she went through. Says Mehuba: 

“Despite poverty, children deserve to grow up in their parent’s love. They have a right to education. Once they are educated, they will have more opportunities.” 

States’ Obligations to prevent child labour 

2020 was a historical moment in the fight against child labour when ILO Convention 182 against the Worst Forms of Child Labour was universally ratified, meaning every child has legal protection against the worst forms of child labour. ILO Convention 138 which requires States parties to establish a minimum age for entry into work and establish national policies for the elimination of child labour has also been widely ratified (with only 12 countries yet to do so). 

While the widespread ratification of such Conventions is a welcome achievement in the long and rigorous battle to protect children’s rights, and a recognition that children deserve to enjoy their rights, free from exploitation, millions of children worldwide are still trapped in the worst forms of forced labour.  

This World Day Against Child Labour, ActionAid and partners call for the implementation of measures necessary to prevent the worst forms of child labour and the universal ratification of ILO C138 to ensure that all children can enjoy their right to a happy, healthy childhood free from exploitation and abuse. 

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Vanessa Power / ActionAid