National / Social Issues | SDG8.7 Dialogue Special

Advocates fighting child labor come together in Tokyo ahead of Osaka G20 summit

by Ryusei Takahashi

Staff Writer

Empowering workers, installing social protection programs and monitoring organizations to implement those programs are key points to reducing 152 million children engaged in child labor worldwide — more than half of whom work in hazardous conditions that put their health and development at risk.

That was the discussion topic at SDG8.7 Dialogue Dinner in April in Tokyo, an event that brought representatives from nine countries together with companies and nonprofit organizations to exchange ideas and discuss what it will take to eradicate child labor and trafficking from the world.

“The population of Japan is 126 million, so think about everyone in Japan being a child working in some form of child labor. That still isn’t as many children who are in child labor today,” Deborah Greenfield, deputy director general for policy at International Labor Organization, said during a panel discussion at the event. “We’ve seen considerable progress but there’s a risk that child labor and forced labor will increase if the pace of action isn’t accelerated.”

The International Labor Organization's Deborah Greenfield (right) and Stefano Scarpetta of OECD discuss efforts to reduce child labor around the world during a panel at the ACE SDG8.7 Dialogue Dinner in April in Tokyo. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
The International Labor Organization’s Deborah Greenfield (right) and Stefano Scarpetta of OECD discuss efforts to reduce child labor around the world during a panel at the ACE SDG8.7 Dialogue Dinner in April in Tokyo. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

The Dialogue Dinner — which was organized by Action against Child Exploitation, or ACE, a Japanese nonprofit organization — brought together delegates from Argentina, Australia, Canada, the EU, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, along with Japanese government officials and representatives from the ILO, ACE and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Founded in 1997, ACE has been fighting for children’s rights for more than two decades, working in Japan and with partner organizations abroad to address child labor issues. Project areas outside of the country include India and Ghana, where the cotton and cocoa industries, respectively, rely heavily on child labor in many cases. The organization is touting an ambitious goal: end child labor in all its forms by 2025.

But a comprehensive package of policies needs to be set in place to eradicate child labor, said Greenfield.

“We’ve seen an increase in child labor where social protection programs have been scaled back. This is notably in rural areas where complex supply chains conceal labor rights abuses and where both conflict and climate change force families to be on the move,” she said. “We have to design policies that connect education, social protection and good labor market governance.”

Empowering workers is also necessary, said Greenfield, adding that child labor can be found where there is abusive labor practices.

Nana Antwi Boasiako Brempong, executive secretary of the nonprofit Child Research for Action and Development Agency in Ghana, poses behind a row of flags following the ACE SDG8.7 Dialogue Dinner. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Nana Antwi Boasiako Brempong, executive secretary of the nonprofit Child Research for Action and Development Agency in Ghana, poses behind a row of flags following the ACE SDG8.7 Dialogue Dinner. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Dire situations like dry seasons and bad harvests can also lead farmers to recruit their children for help, which usually means they don’t go to school, claimed an executive at a nonprofit organization on child labor in Ghana.

“When something like that happens, the farmers become discouraged,” said Nana Antwi Boasiako Brempong, executive secretary of the Child Research for Action and Development Agency (CRADA), a nonprofit organization in Ghana. “They don’t have the knowledge to do the work so we need to encourage them and train them in good agricultural practices to sustain the farm, to make sure that they also sustain their income.”

Ghana is the world’s second-largest exporter of cocoa. It’s the country’s chief agricultural export and main cash crop. And yet, even though more than 800,000 small-scale cocoa farmers make up 60 percent of the country’s agricultural workforce, many of them live in poverty.

He added that his organization is making progress in helping farmers support themselves and in getting their children an education.

“The child labor and trafficking situation has reduced in our project area. We have many children attending school,” Brempong said. “We have children who have become change agents in the communities.”

Yuka Iwatsuki (left), Stefano Scarpetta (center) and Deborah Greenfield speak during a panel discussion during the ACE SDG8.7 Dialogue Dinner in April in Tokyo. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Yuka Iwatsuki (left), Stefano Scarpetta (center) and Deborah Greenfield speak during a panel discussion during the ACE SDG8.7 Dialogue Dinner in April in Tokyo. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Stefano Scarpetta, OECD director for employment, labor and social affairs, said the international community needs to come together and play its role to make further progress in eradicating child labor.

This, Scarpetta explained, requires social protection programs to combat poverty, affordable education to reduce the supply of child labor and laws that establish a minimum age for workers. But, he added, these policies won’t be effective if they’re not accompanied by institutions designed to monitor and enforce their intended purposes.

“We need good evidence of what actually matters the most. Which programs, which intervention actually can really make a difference,” Scarpetta said. “Many countries use different types of programs, different policies. Not all of them achieve the right results … because they were not addressing the most fundamental issues that actually, to some extent, force a number of children to work instead of being educated.”

The OECD’s Child Well-Being Data Portal provides access to a database of information on the home and family environment, health, safety, education and school life, activities and life satisfaction of children from birth to 17 years of age in participating countries. The database also provides links to information on policy related to children and disparities in their well-being by gender, family status, household income and parental background.

“We really need to look at the root causes of child labor,” Scarpetta said. “OECD is documenting what’s going on in a wide range of countries (and) updating a database that looks at many different facets of this issue.”

The dinner began just hours after the end of C20 — which is short for Civil 20 — a three-day gathering in which leaders from 40 countries discussed corruption, transparency in government and the inclusion of marginalized voices in order to finalize a recommendation leading up to the Group of 20 summit that will be held in Osaka in June.

Leaders at the G20 Summit last year promised in a declaration to “eradicate child labor, forced labor, human trafficking and modern slavery in the world of work, including through fostering sustainable supply chains.”

Yuka Iwatsuki, who is the founder and president of ACE as well as the chair of C20, met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 18 along with other leaders to present recommendations created at the summit. These recommendations addressed a variety of issues, including corruption in the government, education, the environment and engineering infrastructure.

“There are increased worries that the space for civil society to operate in is shrinking, especially in Asia,” Iwatsuki said. “The G20 governments must recognize that civil society organizations are indispensable and that a diversity of voices from civil society enriches policymaking.”