The coop economy, worth around US$2.5 trillion, plays its part in helping to eliminate child labour – a problem that, although in decline, still affects 168 million children worldwide.
Around 60 per cent of all child labourers work in farming or a related industry, a sector where cooperatives hold a significant market share.
“Given that the total size of the cooperative economy worldwide is something over two and half trillion US dollars, cooperatives have considerable clout when it comes to making a difference,” says Simel Esim, head of the Cooperatives Unit for the ILO.
Cooperatives, as democratic member-led businesses, can help bring about changes in the way work is organized and how wealth is distributed -- both important steps in helping bring about an end to child labour.
Nevertheless, the fact that so many millions of children are still spending their childhood years at work, suggests that much more still needs to be done.
“There’s a particular opportunity, and indeed a responsibility, for cooperatives and their associations to look at their supply chains and ensure that they are not inadvertently contributing to the problem,” says Esim.
The ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) supports governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations in seeking the progressive elimination of child labour. IPEC has worked with the International Co-operative Alliance and the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit to identify and strengthen the role of cooperatives. The 2009 report, Cooperating out of child labour , highlights good practices by cooperative enterprises.
Simon Steyne, IPEC’s Social Dialogue and Partnerships Unit According to Simon Steyne, Head of IPEC’s Social Dialogue and Partnerships Unit, partnering with national trade union centres and employers’ organizations and with agricultural or, for example, mineworkers’ unions, is crucial to achieve positive results.
“A stronger collective voice for small producers helps promote supply chain reform and a fairer sharing of the cake,” he says. “Support for cooperatism is one of the services that unions can and do offer to members. Employers’ organizations too can play a similar supportive role.”
As Steyne points out, cooperatives may also be employers and should engage in proper labour relations with unions representing their workforce.
“One of the key causes of child labour is inadequate and insecure incomes and a lack of social protection for families. Cooperatives, as social and solidarity economy enterprises, can be important vehicles for a fairer distribution of wealth and an extension of basic social security,” he says.
“And where the key public services children need are lacking, such as education or health care, cooperatives can help communities organize to contribute to the delivery of such services, and have a louder collective voice in bargaining with the public authorities,” he adds.
One of many examples
Registered in 2008, the Cooperative Agricole Kavokiva du Haut Sassandra (CAKHS) in Côte d’Ivoire, is a cocoa and coffee marketing cooperative made up of 5,817 members. Since 2010, CAKHS has been involved in the fight against child labour in the informal and rural economy. With the support of the ILO-IPEC West Africa Project, it has prevented or withdrawn 1,800 children (aged 5 to 17) from hazardous child labour and provided them with basic education and vocational training.
It has also set up five kindergarten centres and school facilities hosting 100 children withdrawn from hazardous child labour. Through CAKHS action, 80 cocoa growing families have been economically empowered to take care of their children at risk of or already engaged in child labour.
The international community has identified the elimination of child labour as a fundamental human right at work. Governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations, through the ILO, adopted the Prohibition and Immediate Action on the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No 182) in 1999. This complements the earlier Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No 138), in setting out clearly the agreed international standards.
The latest ILO estimates show that between 2008 and 2012, the global number of child labourers fell from 215 to 168 million. And the number of children in hazardous work fell from 115 to 85 million.
Despite this headway, the target date of 2016 set by the international community for the elimination of the worst forms of child labour is unlikely to be met. Nonetheless, the good news is that the rapid progress during 2008-2012, demonstrates that governments and social partners know what works in eliminating child labour. The challenge now is to accelerate action.