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Clock watchers: working kids keep poor Latin American families afloat, but at a long-term cost for the region.

Until last year, the gold mines ringing the Peruvian village of Santa Filomena employed hundreds of children as young as six years old. The young workers often inhaled toxic mercury used to extract gold. Today, all those children are in school. Officials are proudly calling the village high in the Andes their nation's first mining town free of child labor.

Credit for this humane achievement belongs to a project co-sponsored by the U.N. International Labor Organization (ILO) and a local nongovernmental organization. Together they built schools and, more importantly, created jobs for parents who no longer need to rely on their children's hard work. It's an important model for other Latin American countries that should be striving to give working children back their childhood.

An estimated 300,000 children labor in mines in Latin America--mostly in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. Of course, the mining industry, which covets youngsters for their ability to squeeze through narrow tunnels where adults can't fit, is not the only offender. The ILO estimates that 48 million children work in Latin America, half of them under the age of 14. U.N. statistics show 17% of kids ages five to 14 work. Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Guatemala have the largest number of underage workers.

Indeed, child labor is ubiquitous in Latin America--in construction, prostitution, orange groves, sugar fields, brick making, markets, charcoal kilns and in households, most often girls serving long hours as domestic servants. Yet the average child worker is not a Dickensian tot toiling in a sweatshop but a child working alongside a parent on a farm or in the underground economy to help feed, shelter and clothe the family.

Several years ago I spent some time in Franca, a city with hundreds of shoe factories known as the child labor capital of Brazil. Many parents told me that their children's pay--no matter how meager--was vital to their family's survival. In fact, some even argued that they had a right to ask their children to help, and that laws should protect them.

But the law also guarantees universal education. And each nation should abide by Article 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which cites the right for children to be protected from any work likely to be hazardous or to interfere with that education.

Child labor is so intractable a problem because it is the direct result of poverty and unemployment. In Argentina, the number of working children quintupled to 1.5 million after the historic economic collapse of 2001 and 2002. Obviously, working kids will never be sent back to their classrooms without a sharp reduction in poverty.

Nevertheless, recent developments have given activists hope that regional governments are finally taking the issue seriously. In June, the ILO signed an agreement with Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Peru to end child labor in small-scale mining and quarries by 2015. The new Central American Free Trade Agreement includes a commitment to create a "child-labor-free zone" by the end of the decade. And 7.5 million Brazilian families and 5 million Mexican families now receive monthly government subsidies to keep their children in school.

Latin American governments must find ways to raise school attendance by not only paying stipends but by reducing the costs of school uniforms, supplies and transportation and doling out scholarships and remedial classes for those who need it.

"If child labor is to be reduced and eventually eliminated, schools must be improved dramatically," Marta Suplicy, the former major of Silo Paulo, recently told reporters. Improving school education "opens a window for poor children who otherwise do not see an alternative."

Most importantly, reform makes economic sense.

In September, an ILO study on the benefits of eliminating child labor showed that if Latin America invested US$105 billion in the next 20 years in schools and subsidies to poor families to keep their children in school, the region would benefit economically by $235 billion as a result of a healthier and more educated population.

Compulsory public education did not stunt the advance of industrialization and economic growth in the United States and United Kingdom more than a century ago--it fueled it. Education is the surest path to an end to child labor, and it will lift millions out of poverty.

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Title Annotation:RADAR
Author:Silicon, Jack
Publication:Latin Trade
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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