In Bolivia, 12-year old boys toil deep underground in the suffocating heat of dangerous silver mines. In the Philippines, children as young as nine are separated from their families to work as servants. In North America, girls are forced into prostitution. All these young people, and millions more around the world, are involved in what the International Labor Organization defines as the 'worst forms' of child labor–extremely dangerous exploitation that often disproportionately involves indigenous youth.
A global reality
On November 20 each year the United Nations marks Universal Children's Day to promote the welfare of children worldwide, including the 168 million people under the age of 18 who are involved in child labor. The United Nations' International Labor Organization (ILO) defines child labor as "work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development." According to this definition, Sub-Saharan Africa sees the world's highest percentage of child labor, followed by Pacific Asia and Latin America. Most countries have national laws and accept international treaties governing the work young people can perform, but despite those regulations, law enforcement is often weak, and family incomes remain so low that children's contributions play a role in family survival.
People in North America or Europe may think of child labor as something that happens in sweatshops or other large scale, urban industries. But today it exists mainly in the informal economy, a world that encompasses everyone from kids selling candy alone on busy city streets to children laboring long hours on family farms. This diffuse, ever-changing work force means that ending child labor is not as simple as shutting down factories that exploit hundreds of young people. And since poverty is one of the key problems driving them to work, forcing children out of jobs without providing an alternative income or support may drive them to even more dangerous, less visible work.
Beyond child labor is another category, the 'worst forms of child labor,' which includes slavery, sexual exploitation and extremely dangerous work. These worst forms can be difficult to address because they often take place out of sight, with children working in mines or on commercial farms, or exploited for prostitution or drug trafficking.
Why indigenous youth
"In indigenous populations you generally have a higher risk of child labor, especially the worst forms, and an equally high risk of not being in school," says Lars Johansen, a senior program officer for the ILO's International Program on the Elimination of Child Labour. "Very often the cause is higher levels of poverty and lack of access to basic services."
There is no reliable global data on how many of the world's 168 million child laborers are indigenous, though local and national studies confirm they are particularly vulnerable. And of course, indigenous groups around the world have unique experiences, though often the loss of tribal lands, historic forced servitude and concerted attempts to eliminate or assimilate Indigenous Peoples have led to desperate economic and social situations.
Without concrete information on indigenous children involved in labor, it's difficult for anyone to address it. The ILO's 2006 report, Guidelines for Combating Child Labour Among Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, acknowledges the problem. "Child labor among Indigenous Peoples has until recently received little attention from governments and international institutions as well as from Indigenous Peoples themselves," the report notes. "It therefore largely remains an invisible issue and there exist no comprehensive data on the magnitude of the problem or on the conditions and types of work in which indigenous children are engaged."
Case study: Bolivia
Bolivia is proportionally one of South America's most indigenous countries, and also the country with the highest rates of child labor. Here, indigenous people make up 40 percent of the population, the majority of people living in poverty, and indigenous children are much more likely to be involved in child labor and the worst forms of child labor than non-indigenous children.
Though Bolivia has made progress in reducing child labor and poverty in recent years, mirroring an international trend, the variety of work that children do is visible everywhere. They are selling food with their parents in market stalls, herding sheep and llamas on the plains and shining shoes on the street. There are thousands of children in the worst forms of child labor, but they are often less visible because they are trapped in domestic servitude, trafficked for sex, or work in isolated mines and fields doing heavy agricultural work.
Deyna Mamani is 13 years old, part of an Aymara Indian family, and works with her grandmother selling hot drinks in a busy market in the city of La Paz on weekends and holidays. They wake up before sunrise to prepare their cart and spend the morning on the side of a road. "It was out of need," Mamani says of why she started working as a child. "The need to study, to buy clothes, and to build a house where I can live with my family… I mostly bought school supplies, because my dad didn't give me money to buy anything."
Mamani's work is illegal because of her age, though she firmly believes that it is not harmful and should be recognized and protected by the government. Eight hours south of La Paz, outside the city of Potosi, Quechua Indian boys as young as 12 are working hundreds of feet underground, where silver and tin are blasted from mountains with dynamite. This is a worst form of child labor, but these very young miners say they work for much the same reason Mamani does: the family income is so low that everyone must to contribute.
Urgent need for research and action
Local and national studies highlight indigenous children's vulnerability to child labor, especially the worst forms, but there are very few in-depth investigations of the problem, especially in Africa and Asia. What information exists, however, points to an urgent need for poverty reduction, which includes decent work for adults, and access to quality schools that respect indigenous traditions and languages. Dialogue between governments and Indigenous Peoples that acknowledges work traditionally valued in different communities is also key, so that children can participate in healthy and culturally important work while avoiding dangerous and exploitative labor.
As the ILO's 2006 study notes, "Unless the specific conditions of indigenous child labor and education are addressed pro-actively, overall child labor elimination efforts are likely to fail."