Yesterday, to commemorate World Day Against Child Labor, I had the honor of participating in a program hosted by our Department of Homeland Security where two survivors of forced child labor shared their harrowing stories. Their remarks helped all of us, onstage and in the audience, reflect on the progress we have made, but also remember that child labor is still a significant problem around the world – and here at home.
The first panelist, a young woman from Togo, West Africa, was trafficked at the age of 16 by a trusted family member into the United States under false pretenses of educational and financial opportunities. Once here, however, she, along with three other children, was forced into domestic servitude at the home of her trafficker, enduring near-constant physical and emotional abuse.
The second panelist was trafficked within the United States, at the age of 14. After meeting her trafficker − a stranger − in a shopping mall, she was coerced into running away with him through promises of wealth and fame. Instead, he forced her into prostitution.
Both of these strong and courageous women emerged from their tragic circumstances and today count themselves as survivors, rejecting any notion that they are victims. Sadly, their stories are not uncommon – and many suffer for far longer than they did. Millions of children around the world are forced to work in domestic labor, mines, factories, or the sex industry, enduring physical and psychological abuse. Many are forced into work under false pretenses of economic opportunity, or to pay off a debt. Almost all find themselves too vulnerable to speak up against the abuses they face.
The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 168 million child laborers worldwide, 85 million of whom perform hazardous work, and 6 million of whom are in forced labor. Girls represent 68 million of these child laborers, with 30 million engaged in hazardous work.
The expansion of social protection programs is one way to reduce child labor and speed the rehabilitation of survivors. Food and nutrition, housing, health care and other basic social protection services help to promote opportunity by alleviating poverty, reducing inequality, and lessening families’ – and children’s – vulnerability.
The Bureau of International Labor Affairs is helping do just this. Since 1995, we have supported projects in more than 90 countries around the world to combat exploitative child labor. To date, ILAB projects have rescued 1.7 million children and provided them with education and their families with other services.
For example, we are currently funding a $10 million project in Tanzania that supports 8,000 children engaged in, or at risk of, child labor in domestic service and agriculture. Like our other projects, it does so through a combination of collecting data; raising awareness among teachers, trade unions, community members and local governments to increase their ability to identify and provide services to victims; and providing educational and other services to the children involved.
The brave young women we heard from today, as well as those around the world helped by ILAB projects, inspire us by what they have achieved once they had escaped from forced child labor. World Day Against Child Labor gives us a chance to reflect on their stories of courage, and on the untold stories of millions of children still suffering exploitation who have not yet been provided these opportunities.
Eric Biel is the associate deputy undersecretary of the Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs.