Child labor is a global problem. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 218 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 are employed worldwide. Among them, 152 million are 5- to 11-year-old victims of child labor; almost half of them, 73 million, work in hazardous environments and jobs; and 37 million, or 24 percent, are 15 to 17 years old. The situation is the worst in Africa. In terms of prevalence, 1 in 5 children in Africa, 19.6 percent, are child laborers, while the prevalence in other regions ranges between 3 percent and 7 percent. Although the problem is quite problematic in developing regions, even in developed regions it is still a problem to be solved. In Europe and Central Asia, 1 in 25 children, and in the Americas, 1 in 19 children are working.
The ILO's global estimates show that child labor is concentrated primarily in agriculture – 71 percent – which includes fishing, forestry, livestock herding and aquaculture, and comprises both subsistence and commercial farming; 17 percent in services; and 12 percent in the industrial sector, including mining. Additionally, the worst forms of child labor exist in all regions of the world. Overall, this is a metastasizing, global problem one would not expect in the 21st century.
A serious problem for Turkey
Child labor is also a serious problem for Turkey. Recent data on this subject is based on studies from the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat) from 2012. TurkStat reported that by 2012, out of 15.25 million employees some 292,000 are aged 6 to 14, and 601,000 are between the ages of 15 and 17. In total, official estimates in 2012 found around 1 million child laborers in the country.
The situation is much worse, according to unofficial estimates. Unofficial estimates are that almost 2 million children are currently subjected to child labor in Turkey, most of them unregistered and in non-secure jobs. The overwhelming majority of these children work on the streets, in heavy and hazardous work in small and medium-sized enterprises and in informal agricultural employment. Turkey's apprenticeship culture also contributes to this situation, as many families give their children as an apprentice to an enterprise if they are convinced that their children are unable to pursue a successful education at school.
Turkey stepped up to decrease child labor
Turkey applied different policies to cope with the problem for a time. In 1994, the country ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is the most widely accepted human rights document for children. Additionally, the country signed ILO Convention No. 138 concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment in 1998 and ILO Convention No. 182 concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor in 2001.
The country took the first concrete step against the worst forms of child labor in 2005 with the 2005-2015 National Framework Program for the Elimination of the Child Labor. But to be fair, this policy changed little on the ground. Despite that the Labor Code of 2003 set a rigid minimum age for employment, with the poor labor inspection system and low implementation capacity of the Labor and Social Security Ministry, nothing much changed in reality.
It has to be stressed that considering that the rate of unregistered employment is 34 percent in the country, changing structural problems like child labor is a difficult task to be undertaken only by the Labor and Social Security Ministry.
2018, the year to fight child labor
Turkey has been trying to come up with a wider strategy to coordinate the public and the private for some time. As the most recent step, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım issued a public mandate last week, declaring 2018 as the year to act against child labor as a first step worldwide. In a statement released on Feb. 20, 2018, Yıldırım said that child labor has become a serious problem at the global and national levels, and that it is necessary for global institutions to take joint action with countries to address the lack of policies regarding the problem.
Yıldırım also said a national program covering 2017 to 2023 to act against child labor had been prepared in coordination with Labor and Social Security Ministry. The program will aim to develop fundamental strategies and activities to prevent child labor and set timelines for activities to be carried out by cooperating with institutions and organizations. The program will also try to build social awareness of the plight of child laborers and the government will provide all types of support and assistance to public institutions.
Time will tell whether this ambitious program will change much in practice. Yet it has to be said that Turkey's efforts concerning this problem are attracting praise in the international arena, including from the ILO. Still, as a structural problem that has deep roots in Turkish culture, gaining the hearts and minds of people is the critical issue in order to eliminate child labor in the country. Additionally, ensuring public-private partnerships and contributions from trade unions to the program is a critical aspect Turkey needs to achieve.
* Inspector at the Republic of Turkey's Social Security Institution