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Reports of persistence of child labour and trafficking in Francophone Africa

On 4th October, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) released a report on core labour standards in Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali, coinciding with the Trade Policy Review of these three countries at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The report found poor compliance with international labour standards, especially with regard to child labour and gender equality.

The three countries have ratified all eight core ILO Conventions. However, the report found that national legislation is not adequately in line with the Conventions and is not efficiently enforced. All three countries define “essential services” far too broadly in order to restrict basic trade union actions, and in practice the right to strike is restricted. In all three countries, female literacy is about half that of men. Women are discriminated against in terms of access to employment and equal remuneration, while disabled persons and persons who live with HIV/AIDS are inadequately protected by law and their access to employment and social services is limited.

In terms of child labour, the report notes that the laws of Burkina Faso and Mali are not in line with the two ILO Conventions on child labour, 138 on Minimum Age of Employment and 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour. The labour inspectorates in all three countries are under-resourced and unable to take more effective action to prevent child labour. Consequently child labour, particularly in its worst forms, is a serious problem.

In Benin, under the practice of vidomegon, poor rural families send their children, usually girls, to the cities with a view to receiving education while working as domestic servants. The sending families arrange with an urban family, sometimes relatives, to provide housing and food to the working child and then the two families share the income generated by the child’s labour. Frequently, the child’s schooling is not a priority for the host family and children working under this practice are exploited, work under inhumane conditions and sometimes become victims of physical abuse. Furthermore, some parents contract their children (thevidomegons) to intermediaries who recruit for farms or domestic servitude with the understanding that the family will benefit from their child’s labour, although often such agents turn out to be traffickers. However, the government, with the support of organisations including ILO-IPEC, is implementing a four-year national action plan to combat child labour and trafficking.

Burkina Faso’s labour legislation has been found to violate the terms of ILO Convention No. 138 which it has ratified. The law sets the minimum age for employment at 15 years, and prohibits persons of less than 18 years of age from performing night work. Hazardous work, which is defined by a list of activities and enterprises, is prohibited for persons younger than 16. However, this is not in line with Convention No. 138 which sets this age limit at 18 years. In addition, children as young as 12-years-old are allowed to perform light work, but the Convention sets as a minimum the age of 13 years. It is estimated that almost half of the country’s children are at work, largely as domestic servants, farmers, stock-raisers and miners as well as in family enterprises. As in the case of Benin, the Burkinabe government, with the support of external organisations, is undertaking steps towards tackling the issue of child labour.

Mali faces similar problems to Benin and Burkina Faso with a grossly under-resourced and ineffective labour inspectorate, but it has the added challenge of an under-performing education system. Education is free and compulsory, although students have to provide their own uniforms and supplies which disadvantages poor families. UNICEF statistics show that overall primary school attendance is 45 per cent for boys and 33 per cent for girls. Only 15 per cent of boys attend secondary school and 11 per cent of girls. The national survey of 2005 showed that 41 per cent of children aged from 5 to 14 years engage in a full-time economic activity, 25 per cent combine work and studies and 17 per cent go only to school. It is reported that child labourers are working excessive hours and often are unfairly remunerated. Child trafficking is an alarming problem in Mali. In addition, many Koranic teachers are reported to force children, sometimes as young as 4-years-old, into beggary or farm work in order to pay for their education and apprenticeship or to raise funds for the school. The government is also being supported in taking steps towards addressing child labour and trafficking.

In summary, although child labour is prohibited in all three countries, Benin and Mali have not yet concluded lists of light work and the legislation of Burkina Faso and Mali is not in line with ILO Conventions on the minimum age of admission to hazardous work. Compliance is poor, due to lack of resources, and child labour, particularly in its worst forms, is a problem. In addition, although all three countries prohibit forced labour in practice it still occurs, affecting mostly children. Reports show that traditional forms of slavery survive in Mali, where certain families from indigenous groups are traded as slaves in a system that ascribes that status at birth. Furthermore, the struggle against trafficking in human beings is being implemented too slowly, particularly in Benin and Mali.

To download the full ITUC report on core labour standards in Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali, click here