Many observers thought that child labour was a thing of the past in Europe. However, there are strong indications that child labour remains a serious problem and that it might be growing in the wake of the economic crisis. Governments need to monitor this situation and to use the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Social Charter as guidance for preventive and remedial action.
Vulnerable people are always disproportionately affected in times of economic down-turn. The link between declining economic growth and increasing child labour is therefore no surprise. With the recession many European countries have drastically cut social aid. As unemployment soars, many families have found no other solution than sending their children to work.
Hazardous and dangerous jobs
The prevalence of child labour in developing countries is a well-known problem – according to the International Labour Organisation today more than 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 work. In trying to map the situation in Europe, however, my Office has found that information is very sparse. In fact, it seems to be a taboo subject. But we have been able to accumulate enough information to see a grim picture.
According to UN research, in Georgia 29 percent of children aged 7-14 are working. In Albania the figure is 19 percent. The government of the Russian Federation has estimated that up to 1 million children may be working in the country. In Italy, a study of June 2013 indicates that 5.2 percent of children younger than 16 are working. But from most other countries no data are yet available.
Many of the children working across Europe have extremely hazardous occupations in agriculture, construction, small factories or on the street. This has been reported for example in Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine. Work in agriculture may involve using dangerous machinery and tools, carrying heavy loads and applying harmful pesticides. Working in the streets leaves children vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
In Bulgaria child labour is apparently very common in the tobacco industry, with some children working up to 10 hours a day. In Moldova reports indicate that school directors, farms and agricultural cooperatives have signed contracts that require students to help with the harvest.
Other countries at risk are those that were badly affected by austerity measures: Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Portugal. Many children reportedly work long hours also in the United Kingdom.
Throughout Europe Roma children are especially at risk. Another particularly vulnerable group are unaccompanied migrants under 18, originating from developing countries.
What should be done
Governments urgently need to pay specific attention to the problems of child labour, to investigate, collect data and monitor. Most countries have adequate legislation but fail to monitor actual practices.
- The best interests of the child should be the guiding principle, as stated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the standards of the European Social Charter.
- The authorities should carefully evaluate the potential impact on child labour caused by budgetary cuts in the field of education and training.
- They should also evaluate the impact on child labour of cuts in social policies and support to families: the main cause for children having to work is poverty.
- Labour inspection agencies should be in a position to do their work adequately.
- States should vigorously combat trafficking of children for work and exploitation. The seven Council of Europe member states who have not yet ratified the Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings should do so, and all member states should cooperate with the monitoring group GRETA.
What future for these children?
I am deeply concerned that limited attention is being paid to the risks of child labour in Europe. In most countries officials are aware of the problem, but few are willing to tackle it. That data and figures are almost non-existent or highly approximate is a point of worry in itself. One cannot fight a problem without information about its extent, character and effects.
A particularly worrying aspect is that work interferes with children’s schooling: their results are soon affected and many eventually drop out of school. This only perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Choosing education over work for children is the only way for a country to develop.
Many concrete measures need to be taken. Last year we saw one such action in Turkey when the government passed a law that raised the age of compulsory education to 17 in order to minimise the risk of labour exploitation. More such initiatives are needed.
Letting the problem of child labour go unaddressed not only puts the future of these children at risk. It also raises the question of what our societies will look like in the future when these children grow up having missed the chance to play and to learn at school, but having been exposed to various health risks at an early age. We need to act now for the future of these children and our own societies.