Image: Child working in Brazil
Renzo Gostoli  /  AP
Marcela da Silva, 9, juggles limes for tips in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Thursday. The number of children working around the world is declining for the first time, the International Labor Organization reports.
updated 5/4/2006 4:21:50 PM ET 2006-05-04T20:21:50

Taina Moraes cut sisal to make rope, a tough job for a 7-year-old. But U.N.-backed programs helped her family plant crops and buy goats — and in doing so got Taina out of the factory and into school.

“In the beginning I didn’t know how to read. But my teacher kept pushing me, and now reading is my life,” Taina, now 15, said from Valente, 800 miles northeast of Rio.

Taina is being touted as a success story by the International Labor Organization, which announced Thursday that the number of children at work worldwide is declining for the first time.

The number of laborers under age 18 fell by 11 percent between 2000 and 2004, from 246 million to 218 million, the Geneva-based ILO said.

“The end of child labor is within our reach,” the group’s director-general, Juan Somavia, said in a report. “We can end its worst forms in a decade.”

The most dramatic decline has been in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the number of working children has fallen by two-thirds in four years, the ILO said. Just 5 percent of youths in the region are in the work force.

Brazilian children still cut sugar cane in the northeast, make charcoal in central Brazil, sell candy at streetlights in Sao Paulo and run drugs in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. But the ILO said reduced poverty, better education and a global rejection of child labor helped shrink their numbers.

The number of working Brazilian children ages 5-9 fell by 61 percent between 1992 and 2004, and the larger number of working children 10-17 fell by 36 percent.

Tsunami, other disasters could reverse trend
Globally, the biggest problem stems from the agriculture industry, in which seven out of 10 child laborers work, the ILO said.

Child labor also has fallen in Asia and the Pacific, but the region still has some 122 million workers between the ages of 5 and 14, the most of any region. And the ILO said the number in Asia could rise again because of December 2004 tsunami and the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.

“Separated from their families, girls and boys became vulnerable to abduction and the more general risk of becoming entangled in child labor as part of the coping mechanism adopted by surviving families and communities,” the ILO said.

Sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty, high population growth and the AIDS epidemic have hampered efforts to curb child labor, has the highest proportion of working children in the world, with nearly 50 million — one in every four children, the ILO said.

Poor children join the work force early, and are valued for their agility and manual dexterity, especially in fishing communities where small fingers are useful in handling fine nets.

“It is mostly children from large households who are given out because their parents are very — I mean very — poor and cannot feed them,” said Cromwell Awadey, of the religious charity International Needs in Ghana.

But there is hope: Primary school enrollment in the region increased 38 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the ILO.

Abolishing child labor by 2016
More than 30 nations have set a deadline of 2016 to abolish the worst forms of child labor, and the ILO urged other countries to set target dates as well. The report did not mention the United States.

In Brazil, child labor has been virtually eradicated in the formal sector, where the government tightened inspections and began prosecuting employers who violate labor law, said Pedro Americo, national coordinator of the government’s Program for the Eradication of Child Labor.

Pressure from foreign consumers led employers in export industries to form a pact to reject child labor and forced labor, he said.

But most working children are part of the informal economy, which is not protected by labor laws. Some employers hire children because they are cheap and flexible, and family businesses often cannot afford to pay formal employees, the ILO said.

“We still have a lot to do in the informal area and where child labor is hidden, like pornography and drug trafficking,” Americo said.

Money for staying in school
The Brazilian government has helped keep many kids off the job market with a program that began in the 1990s. It pays families a monthly stipend to keep their children in school and involved in extracurricular activities like dance, crafts or sports.

“You only see the result after 15 years,” Americo said. “You need political determination to do it.”

Mexico also has tried a program to help poor families keep their kids in school, and Brazil is sharing its experiences with Chile, Colombia, Tanzania and Mozambique.

“It’s a complex problem,” said Alison Sutton, Coordinator of Child Protection at the U.N. office in Brasilia, the capital. “You need law enforcement, cash outlays, education, an extended school day, income generation and training.”

Brazil’s program to eradicate child labor has reached 1 million children and is expanding, she said.

“What Brazil has done is so impressive, that it’s worth studying by other countries,” she said.

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