Child Labor Is Declining Worldwide, But It's Thriving in These Six Countries

Eighty five million: That's how many children are involved the worst forms of child labor, including prostitution, the handling of hazardous materials, and heavy labor. According to figures compiled by UNICEF, these 85 million make up some 10.5 percent of the world's children.

Thursday marks the U.N.'s World Day Against Child Labour, and despite this grim snapshot, child labor is actually decreasing across the globe. The International Labour Organization (ILO), a U.N. body, estimates that the numbers of children being sent out to work in the harshest and most dangerous types of jobs have been cut in half since 2000 and says that an increasing number of countries are adopting legislation against child labor every year. But implementing those types of laws is difficult in countries beset by poverty, war, and human trafficking.

For many of the world's children, working for a living is an unfortunate reality. Documenting child labor can be difficult to do, but below are six countries where child labor is particularly prevalent. These examples come from the 2014 Child Labour Index published by Maplecroft, a global risk consulting firm, and reflect two major trends responsible for governments failing to tackle the worst forms of child labor: insecurity created through poverty and war, and economies where child labor is a product of state-sponsored programs.


Eritrea is among the world's most closed countries, with a government known for its abysmal human rights record and one-party rule. Under a program known as Mahtot, children from grades nine through 11 are conscripted into the workforce and forced to work two months every summer building roads and buildings on behalf of the state.

Moreover, the government recruits children under the age of 18 for mandatory military service that doubles as a work program. According to reports from the U.S. Department of Labor and Human Rights Watch, military conscripts are used as forced laborers at Bisha, the country's largest gold mine. Eritrea's economy overwhelmingly depends on mining, and the government appears to have no intention to reform its child labor practices.

"Not only is Eritrea one of the world's few countries that still uses state-sponsored child labor," says Marilu Gresens, a senior human rights analyst for Maplecroft, "but there is very little indication that the government is concerned about the gravity of the situation."


With over two decades of civil war and endemic poverty, many Somali children are part of the country's informal workforce. All too often, that work is soldiering. According to Human Rights Watch, the use of child soldiers hasn't been limited to one side of the conflict. Both al-Shabab, the Islamist militant group, and the Transitional Federal Government, the Western-backed government in Mogadishu, have continued to commit serious abuses against children, including recruiting children into their forces, according to testimony given at the U.N. To its credit, Somalia's TFG signed a plan of action against child recruitment in July 2012, but little progress has been made.

"You basically have a complete breakdown of governance and no rule of law in Somalia," says Gresens. "Even with political will, the resources are not present to stop the worst practices of child labor."

North Korea

While little data on child labor in North Korea is available to outsiders, defector testimonies describe extensive use of the practice. Forced labor has become a structural necessity for North Korea's closed economy, frequently forcing children into the workforce. As one North Korean defector told Human Rights Watch in 2012:

"When I was between 11 and 15 years old I had to work on the government farm almost every day.... We finished class at 1 p.m. and had to rush back home to eat lunch because the school didn't provide food for the students. The school would announce that we'd have to meet back at the school field and bring our own farm tools. They forced everyone, even the small children, to work."

Defectors have described horrible conditions, especially in political prison camps, where offenders' entire families, including children, are sent to work. During testimony at the U.N. in February, Ahn Myeong Chul, a former prison guard, described torture as commonplace and said children were sometimes mauled to death by guard dogs for refusing to work.

Research from the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights tells of teachers and administrators forcing children to work collecting food for resale and toiling on collective farms. According to the report, children usually begin working at age 11, but start as early as nine in rural areas.


Since winning independence from the United Kingdom nearly seven decades ago, Myanmar has been wracked by a series of internal conflicts, which have in turn contributed to the use of child labor. But with Myanmar gradually transitioning toward democratic rule, the government has begun to make commitments toward combating child labor. However, progress has been slow. "Due to a combination of desperate poverty and a history of conflict, child labor is now a pillar of Myanmar's economy," Gresens says.

While some in the government are attempting to stop the worst forms of child labor, enforcement remains limited. Military personnel and insurgent militias remain the worst perpetrators of forced labor in Myanmar, with thousands of children estimated of have been forced to take up arms, according to a 2013 State Department report. Moreover, an increasing number of boys and girls, especially those from rural areas, are victims of sex trafficking to larger cities or sent to work as beggars in Thailand. It is estimated by the U.N. that over a third of children in Myanmar are child laborers.


Uzbekistan has become internationally infamous for state-sponsored forced labor in the cotton industry. The annual cotton harvest is integral to the Central Asian country's economy and is estimated to supply around 10 percent of the global supply of the fiber. Human Rights Watch estimates that every year the government forces more than a million of its 29 million citizens, both adults and children, to work in the cotton fields. The government shuts down schools and workplaces in order for its citizens to pick cotton.

Traditionally, the cotton harvest has relied heavily on children, but there have been some signs that Tashkent is caving under international pressure, including a boycott by top clothing brands, among them Swedish retailer H&M. In 2008, Uzbekistan finally adopted the ILO's conventions on the minimum age of work and barring children from dangerous work. However, the scope of the conventions' enforcement remains up for debate. In 2013 the government finally allowed ILO monitors into the country to observe the cotton harvest, where they documented 41 cases of minors working in the fields. The government now claims that no children under the age of 15 are being used in the harvest.

Still, this leaves students from ages 15 to 18 participating in the state-sponsored cotton harvest, and human rights activists remain skeptical about the government's pledges. Tashkent continues to persecute activists and journalists who try to document the cotton harvest.


Despite nearly 13 years of American military occupation and untold billions in development assistance, child labor remains endemic in Afghanistan. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, children as young as six can be found working in brick-making, carpet-weaving, mining, and construction. As in the factories of the Industrial Revolution, children are often used for the most dangerous tasks and are at high risk of being killed or maimed in mines or construction sites, according to the same report.

The exact number of child laborers in Afghanistan is not known, but children often find themselves working in Afghanistan's booming underground economy. Children have been found working as drug mules, soldiers, and in commercial sexual exploitation. Girls, often forced to marry young and denied access to education, have been found in domestic servitude or forced into prostitution by their husbands, according to Human Rights Watch.  

Afghanistan does have laws that prohibit children 14 and younger from working full-time, but they are vaguely written and sparsely enforced. Moreover, the combination of insecurity, poverty, and the country's large informal workforce, such as those paid under the table, mean that children in Afghanistan will take whatever work they can -- no matter how dangerous.

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European Taxi Drivers Are So Mad About Uber They’re Snarling Traffic

It was 1937 when a sudden influx of drivers led authorities in Paris to set a quota of 14,000 taxi licenses. Seventy years later, the population of Paris has grown by 20-plus million but city authorities refuse to issue more than a few thousand new licenses, leading to one of the lowest cab-to-person ratios in major European cities and the lowest levels of consumer satisfaction. There's a reported 17-year wait-list for a license, which go for as much as 200,000 to 250,000 euros on the secondary market. Drivers take on massive debt to enter the business; and it's not uncommon for them to work upwards of 70 hours a week to pay off loans.

So it's perhaps no surprise that the cabbies of Paris are up in arms about the arrival of Uber, the car service app that's sweeping the world and recently completed a new round of funding that valued the company at $17 billion. On Wednesday, taxi drivers in at least six major European cities, including Paris, went on strike, blocking roads and causing all kinds of traffic mayhem to send a message to Uber. (Ironically, Travis Kalanick, Uber's CEO, started the company after he couldn't find a cab in Paris.)

Though the traffic-making spectacle appears to be a new tactic, the capitalists at the Silicon Valley darling are facing criticism similar to what it has received in the United States: That the company is skirting laborious taxi regulation and must be stopped.

Uber bills itself not as a taxi service, but as a ride-sharing service that simply connects drivers and passengers. Although that distinction is up for debate, it is important because few nations have policies that explicitly bans such services. France, however, bans almost all private-hire cars, and in the United States, Virginia recently gave Uber a cease-and-desist letter until the state updates its policy.

Some cities are reforming their convoluted cab systems in face of the new competition. London's famous black cabs, for example, are being rolled into the app.

Paris, however, remains a monument to the worst kind of taxi-industry extremism. The city  slapped minicab companies -- cars for hire that you can't hail on the street such as Easytake -- with arbitrary vehicle size specifications that disqualified their entire fleet and put them out of business in 2012. Uber cars have been attacked with rocks and had their tires slashed. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed adding thousands of new licenses while reformers suggest buying back all existing ones and de-regulating the business. All reform plans and new legislation has been met with -- you guessed it -- taxi drivers blocking the streets.

Neelie Kroes, a vice president of the European Commission, has been vocal on this issue in favor of Uber. She wrote in a blog post that drivers have a right to be worried, but "we cannot address these challenges by ignoring them, by going on strike, or by trying to ban these innovations out of existence."

Although local politicians are sensitive to the concerns of taxi drivers and the imperative to protect local jobs, Europe is also trying to move its often sclerotic bureaucracy into the 21st century, in part by making the continent more receptive to the tech industry. The promise of cheaper fares and expanded taxi access poses a threat to an industry that provides living wages to thousands of European drivers. The trade-off isalso one of quality: You'll never have to navigate for a London cabbie; the same can't be said of Uber drivers.

Still, in the age of ubiquitous GPS navigation, the notorious tests for London cabbies are becoming an anachronism. Referred to as "the Knowledge," London's navigation tests for cabbies require them to know essentially every street and landmark in London. That's a service Google Maps and its ilk also provides, making any driver with a pulse a rival of a London cabbie -- and frequently at a much lower cost. With that in mind,the protest movement against Uber looks less like a high-minded effort to protect consumers and more like an attempt to maintain a monopoly.

Uber has now pushed into 37 countries and with big money and buzz behind it, it seems unlikely that the company won't decisively break into the European market. In short: technology breeds disruption, so adapt and move on. But with the streets blocked, that won't be easy.

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