By Sakke Teerikoski 

“[E]ven the hardened social reformers in Britain of the 1840’s would have been shocked by the conditions facing children today in the world’s poorest countries. In West Africa, children as young as 12 are working in narrow tunnels down the shifts of artisanal gold mines. In India, children are trafficked and traded as bonded labourers to work in agriculture, manufacture and domestic services. In Bolivia, young children are working long hours with machetes to cut sugar cane on commercial farming estates. Meanwhile, an untold number are trapped in the worst forms of child labour, including child prostitution and forced recruitment into armed groups.”

The above excerpt is taken from the introduction to the report Child Labour & Educational Disadvantage – Breaking the Link, Building Opportunity written by Gordon Brown as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Global Education in 2012. Brown is referring to a movement to eradicate child labour in Europe in the mid-1800s and some of the conditions under which children on other continents worked in the beginning of the previous decade. In the report, Brown called for the complete elimination of child labour by 2020. Stating that still, in 2012, there were 91 million children under 12 years old who were involved in child labour worldwide. Children aged 5-14 employed in hazardous work amounted to 50 million in 2008. While the report also outlined a trend that this number was decreasing, 17 million children aged 5-14 were still projected to be employed in hazardous work in 2020. Today we know that the projection wasn’t too far off. In 2016, 19 million children aged below 12 were working in hazardous jobs, according to a study published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2017.

In this context, hazardous work is defined as mining, quarrying and construction. Children recruited into militias are outside the scope of this article, but it is of course a severe issue and definitely hazardous for the children involved.

Mining is a domain in which child labour is still used today to a relatively large extent. It has been applied in mining since antiquity, when child slaves worked in the dark and narrow passages of the mine of Laurion to provide ancient Athens with silver. Today, rare minerals are mined from hard-to-reach places to supply a global demand on smartphones and other modern electronics. Child labour is the dark side of this industry. A big political discussion and dilemma in the raw material trading-domain is the fact that notable portions of some of these rare minerals occur in countries where child labour is still practiced today. On the other end of this value chain there is also the issue that electronic junk ends up in junkyards elsewhere, where – again – children work to take out precious metal pieces from dumped products. 

The 2012 UN report was a statement saying that the world was failing to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goal number two, that of universal primary education. The fact that children were working alongside going to school, or dropping out entirely because they had to work, naturally raised the risk for these children to never complete their primary education. The problem of child labour goes far beyond the education aspect, though. A defining problem of child labour is that a child is denied its childhood and forced to work like an adult or, in some cases, in even worse working conditions.

A central dilemma is of course the economy. Children don’t drop out of school in order to work in a mine unless the income from the work is badly needed by their families. It is the overall market and the economic situation in poor regions that turn survival into a struggle for those families and sending the kids to work may seem like the most profitable way to generate income in the short-term. In the long-term, however, the education that those children could have gotten will be a great economic loss for them.

“Yet efforts to combat child labour are failing in the face of inertia, indifference and an indefensible willingness on the part of too many governments, international agencies, and aid donors to turn a blind eye.” (Gordon Brown, 2012)

The UN didn’t reach its own goal to eradicate child labour by 2020. Political will in general has shown its absence on this matter for years. However, on the other hand, maybe the UN is not the central actor here. Rather, consumer awareness and corporate responsibility could be the keys to eliminating child labour by 2025, which is the new target year that organisations, including the UN, now advocate for as part of the Sustainable Development Goals framework launched in 2016. Responsible businesses and consumers with increasing awareness of the child labour problem could turn the market in favour of goods produced in an ethical manner. Just like consumers are encouraged to favour fair-trade products, consumers could take a leading role in turning the profits away from production that involves child labour by choosing other products instead.

Legislators must also do their part, for example by enforcing value-chain transparency for key categories of goods so that consumers get the knowledge about where the raw materials in their smartphones actually originate from. The European Green Deal could actually become a useful mechanism in this regard. Raw materials play a central role in the green transition of Europe, as demand for batteries for electric vehicles and devices surges. Surely a just transition to carbon neutrality without leaving anyone behind, as they say, would also include a transition away from raw materials acquired through child labour, leading to abolishment? It should at least increase the awareness among us Europeans about the ethical status of the raw materials we import. The first steps are being taken. Earlier this year, on the 27th-28th of January, the Dutch government in collaboration with the ILO organised a conference titled Taking next steps to end child labour in global supply chains to set the road for reaching the 2025 target. The direction is right. In 2025 we will know if child labour elimination was successful.

Illustration: Smilla Lind

Sakke Teerikoski is a long-time member of UF and is currently the president of the UFS. When he’s not busy writing for Uttryck, he dwells in the realms of space satellites and, previously, EU affairs. Sakke is an engineer, currently based in Uppsala.

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