Enforcement is Key to Ending Global Child Labor

A boy wearing a headlamp works underground in a mica mine.
12-year-old Sambilahatsa dropped out of school and works in the Vohibola mica mine in Anosy, Madagascar. Credit: Safidy Andrianantenaina, UNICEF, UN0673614

Almost a decade ago, 191 world leaders committed to eradicating the worst forms of child labor by 2025 and adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. But two years from the deadline, 160 million children are still engaged in exploitative child labor – including mining cobalt and harvesting cocoa, sugar, coffee, and palm oil – with nearly half working in hazardous conditions. This an increase of 8.4 million children since 2016.

The U.S. Department of Labor just released our annual Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor report, which assesses the state of child labor in 131 countries and territories. It contains more than 2,000 country-specific recommendations for government actions to address the problem. Strong enforcement of labor laws is a critical tool in combating child labor, but many countries fall short. Enforcement-related gaps account for 38% of our policy recommendations.

What accounts for labor enforcement gaps?

Our research found that enforcement-related gaps are due to limited capacity, corruption and lack of commitment. The number of countries with a sufficient number of labor inspectors fell from 36 to 31 in just one year. Worksite inspections are the first defense against employers’ exploitation of children, yet workplace inspection systems in most countries need more resources. There are personnel shortages, vehicle and fuel scarcities, insufficient training of inspectors, and ineffective prioritization and/or lack of authority to inspect the workplaces most likely to have child labor. Many labor inspectorates and criminal law enforcement agencies do not have the resources, ability or authority to do their jobs.

Enforcement in action

The Department of Labor is committed to working with governments to strengthen and increase enforcement capacity. 

For example, our Futuros Brillantes Project is building government capacity to identify and remediate labor law violations in Honduras. The project advances protections for children and workers' rights through training, new regulations and protocols, and developing an electronic case management system, which helps to systematize and strengthen the labor inspection process. This is just one of the department-funded projects that have helped to train over 65,000 labor inspectors and law enforcement officials worldwide on effective enforcement practices since 1995.

Enforcement must be victim-centered and trauma-informed. It needs to restore and uphold the fundamental rights of children, as well as hold exploiters accountable. In 2022, Brazil's labor inspectorate conducted over 1,300 inspections targeting child labor, the highest number of inspections and removals the Brazilian government recorded in the past six years. The inspections led to the removal of more than 2,300 children from exploitative labor. When children are removed from child labor, they are referred to a child and adolescent protection network that registers them in public social protection programs. It also assists families by enrolling these children and adolescents in school.  

Signs of progress

Other countries are also heading in the right direction by strengthening child labor law enforcement. Several countries – including Ghana, Bolivia, Panama and Morocco – hired and trained additional inspectors to boost the capacities of their labor inspectorates. Burundi increased its funding for labor inspections fourteen-fold. Colombia created an elite group of inspectors to better focus on child labor. Tunisia and Burkina Faso created or launched digital platforms or mobile applications for their officials to better determine risks that children face and identify the most appropriate services for those removed from exploitative situations.

As we approach the UN’s 2025 deadline to eradicate child labor in all its forms, we urge all governments to protect children and adults from exploitation and afford all workers opportunities for better livelihoods. This means redoubling efforts to identify labor violations and hold perpetrators accountable, enacting and implementing stronger child labor laws, and maintaining effective labor inspectorates. The clock is ticking. The world’s children cannot wait.

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Marcia Eugenio is the director of the Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking in the Bureau of International Labor Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor. Follow ILAB on X/Twitter at @ILAB_DOL and on LinkedIn.