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UN unveils plans to eliminate child labour by 2020

Warning that "current trends are … of great concern" the UN says there will still be about 190-million child labourers in eight years' time – a drop of just 25-million on today's figures. Even worse is that in the poorest parts of the world, the UN says, the numbers will rise: child labourers in sub-Saharan Africa will jump by around 15-million over the next decade, reaching 65-million by 2020.

A UN report – to be launched on Monday morning by the UN's special envoy on education, the former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown – warns that unless the issue is tackled, the internationally agreed millennium development goal that all children should complete primary school by 2015 will not be achieved. Child labour, the UN says, "exacerbates the risk of being out of school. In India, non-attendance rates for child labourers are twice the level for children not involved in child labour."

The research says the "sheer scale of child labour is not widely recognised". About 60-million under-17-year-olds are involved in global agriculture. Mining, it says, is a "magnet" for child labour, with children as young as six digging shafts and scuttling around mounds of rock with little more than a hammer and chisel. Around half of the workforce in Afghanistan's brick kilns is aged under 14. In Ethiopia almost 60% of children work.

Multinational companies also come under fire. The report points out that in China, underage labour recruited by networks of agents from poor rural areas "has been found in factories supplying companies such as Apple, Samsung and Google".

It also chides industry for failing in the past to keep its side of the bargain in tackling the problem. US chocolate companies, the UN notes, had promised to educate all children in areas where it grew cocoa in west Africa – a commitment that would cost the industry $75-million or 0.1% of annual sales. Instead it spent about $20-million over eight years and reached just 4% of children in cocoa-growing communities in Côte d'Ivoire and 30% in Ghana.

The UN says that the first step would be to make education compulsory for all children – and perhaps go as far as paying families to send their children to school, an approach that has worked in Brazil. This would mean that by 2015 an extra $13-billion in funding would be needed.

Many children are forced to combine education and employment, and are consequently more likely to drop out, to complete fewer years in school and to achieve lower test scores. The UN warns that child labourers suffer a 17% achievement gap with non-working children in language and maths.

Despite a host of international treaties and domestic laws prohibiting child labour in poorer nations, authorities rarely have the will – or the money – to enforce them.

Brown told the Guardian that child labour was the "new slavery" for our age. "Efforts to combat child labour are failing in the face of inertia, indifference and an indefensible willingness on the part of too many governments, international agencies and aid donors to turn a blind eye," he writes in the foreword to the report.

The UN's roadmap takes its inspiration from how Victorian Britain first came to terms with – and then eradicated – child labour in the 19th century. The country began by offering education to child workers in the 1830s, then banned children from working in hazardous conditions a decade later. By the 1880s Britain was imposing heavy fines on industries for employing children.

The report's author, Kevin Watkins, a former UN official who now works at the respected Washington-based thinktank the Brookings Institution, said: "The conditions of millions of child labourers would shock even the most hardened Victorian social reformers. National governments and international agencies are failing these kids, and reneging on their commitments." – © Guardian News and Media 2012

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