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Child labour in Asia: The story of Thao

Asia and the Pacific registered declines both in the child population and in the number of economically active children, but only a very small decrease in activity rates, according to the ILO's new Global Report "The end of child labour: Within reach". The ILO estimates that this region has the largest number of child workers in the 5-14 age group - some 122 million, with 62 million engaged in work that is considered hazardous. ILO Online reports from the Indonesian capital Jakarta.

Article | 04 May 2006

JAKARTA (ILO Online) - Thao started working as a child domestic worker when she was 11 years old. Following her father's death, she went to Jakarta with her mother to look for a job as a child domestic worker. She soon found an employer in the Bekasi suburb of the city.

Initially, Thao was well treated. But later, her employer became increasingly harsh with Thao. The girl was subjected to constant harassment and verbal abuse. She had not been paid for over a year and a half when she learned of the centre for child domestic workers run by the Indonesian Children's Welfare Foundation (YKAI).

YKAI is collaborating with the ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) to prevent and eliminate child domestic work. The centre, called Sanggar Puri, provides non-formal education and vocational training. Social workers attached to the centre also regularly visit households in the local communities to identify child domestic workers and negotiate with employers (usually the woman of the house) to allow girls and boys time off to visit the centre and benefit from its education and training courses.

The social workers aim to withdraw children from domestic service. This requires negotiation with employers and parents. Scholarships from YKAI encourage parents to send their children to school, although this is not always successful.

Thao is one of the children who has benefited from the project. She was withdrawn from domestic service two years ago and is now studying in junior high school. Although she now lives alone with her younger sister in financially difficult circumstances, Thao is keen to continue her studies.

"I never want to go back to work as a child domestic worker", she says. "I prefer living alone with my sister to living with my employer in Jakarta."

According to the 2003 national socio-economic survey, more than 1.5 million Indonesian children between 10 and 14 years of age are in the labour force and not attending school. Another 1.6 million are not attending school and are described as helping at home or doing other things.

"A large part of the child labour is concentrated in rural areas where children work in agriculture and in plantations. Large numbers of children are also employed in home industries, domestic work and fisheries", says Alan Boulton, Director of the ILO office in Jakarta.

What can be done?

Indonesia's National Action Plan for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour identifies five priorities for action: trafficking of children; children's involvement in the manufacture or trafficking of drugs; and children working in fishing, footwear and mining.

Since September 2003, Indonesia has been implementing its first time-bound programme as part of a plan of action launched in 2004 and has worked with a wide range of stakeholders to raise awareness of the issue and to implement programmes to tackle child labour.

According to the report, there is a close link between poverty and child labour. Perhaps the best illustration of what can be done to end poverty is the experience over the last four decades in East and South-East Asia. Development in this subregion has seen countries such as Malaysia take off economically in the 1960s and virtually eradicate US$1-a-day poverty today and achieve universal education.

"The examples of Malaysia, the Republic of Korea, Thailand and China show that political commitment to reducing poverty and expanding education has had an important bearing on child labour elimination", comments Guy Thijs, Director of the ILO's IPEC programme.

Thailand was one of the first countries to join IPEC, in 1992. In 1994, IPEC assisted the Government in setting up a National Steering Committee to respond to child labour under what is now the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare. In addition, IPEC managed to link more than 170 agencies, although it directly supported fewer than 50.

"An important factor accounting for the steady decline in child labour was the firm commitment in 1992 by the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Thailand following a period of military rule to ending child labour and sexual exploitation", explains Thijs.

"The Asian tiger countries also illustrate the link between the eradication of poverty and the elimination of child labour. In the last 25 years, China has taken more people out of poverty and enrolled more children in school than any other country. There is strong evidence that this has also had a dramatic impact on child labour in China", he concludes.

Note 1 - The end of child labour: Within reach, Global Report under the follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, report to the International Labour Conference, 95th Session, Geneva, 2006.