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Signs of growth in child labour emerge in Colombia

2 May 2011: According to a report by the non-profit communications agency PANDI in Colombia, the country experienced a sharp rise in the volume of child workers between 2007 and 2009, with a growth of around 35 per cent. The report cites figures issued by DANE, the national statistics agency, indicating that in 2009 Colombia had at least just over 1 million working children, compared to around 787,000 in 2007.

To this figure is also added the nearly 800,000 children, especially girls, who have to work more than 15 hours a week on household chores, contributing to an overall total of nearly 1.85 million working children. The PANDI report noted the apparent discrepancy in a country where the 4.3 per cent rise in domestic GDP has been heralded with pride alongside a simultaneously burgeoning underage workforce, questioning the usefulness of such economic growth in the eradication of poverty.

Mr Camilo Dominguez, programme manager of the social action group Fundación Telefonica, said: “In a country with a growing economy and an unemployment rate that remains around 12 per cent, you have to ask why children are increasingly being exposed to work … Approximately one in 10 children work in Colombia. That amounts to twice the population of Manizales [in the department of Caldas] ... It must be a priority in this country to restore the rights of these children immediately and mobilise ourselves to discourage our society from allowing them to continue working.”

As in many countries around, rural areas constitute the highest proportion of child workers in Colombia, as well as the most significant increase, with 37.3 per cent of the child workforce associated with some form of agricultural work. However, around 0.5 per cent of working children can be found toiling in mines – over 5,000 children risk their lives daily to work in these hazardous conditions. Currently, legislation permits children to carry out “light work” (as defined by ILO Convention No. 138 on Minimum Age of Employment) for up to 14 hours per week, although this regulation is often flouted. Around 58 per cent of child labourers work more than the allocated daily maximum for adult workers, while 11 per cent work more than 48 hours a week.

The rise in the underage workforce in Colombia has been primarily attributed to the global economic crisis, although Mr Dominguez drew attention to the fact that it is not the most impoverished families that typically send their children to work, saying: “Interestingly, it is not the poorest families who put their children to work. As we noted in a study last year, it is in the middle income deciles where most child labour is concentrated and not the lowest.”

Meanwhile, Ms Melba Diaz, the government’s director of labour protection, cautioned that even the high figures cited by DANE do not identify every child labourer, saying that “the capacity to identify where children are working failed.” She went on to state: “There is hidden child labour, including sexual exploitation of children or in the marketplaces that we could not detect.”

Reflecting on the indications in this report, Global March Chairperson Kailash Satyarthi commented: “Global March expressed its concerns in 2010 about the impact of the global financial crisis, pointing out the strong likelihood that this would lead to increases in the incidence of child labour around the world and also roll back some of the progress made through programmes and projects. The PANDI report points to a significant rise in child labour in Colombia in the period just before the financial crisis hit to just after. This is just one country that has had the benefit to draw on government statistics – but what about those countries where these statistics are not yet available? The ILO’s 2010 Global Child Labour Report drew on statistics prior to the crisis and we do not believe that the bigger picture has yet emerged. If the situation in Colombia is anything to go by, the problem is probably much worse than imagined.”

Source: Colombia Reports and UPI