Colombia experienced a sharp rise in the volume of child workers between 2007 and 2009, with a growth of around 35%, according to a report by the non-profit communications agency PANDI.
The report cites figures issued by DANE, the national statistics agency, indicating that in 2009 Colombia had at least 1,050,147 children in employment, compared to some 787,000 in 2007.
To this figure is also added the nearly 800,000 children, especially girls, who have to work more than 15 hours a week on household chores, contributing to an overal total of 1,849,987 minors.
The PANDI report noted the apparent discrepancy in a country where the 4.3% rise in domestic GDP has been heralded with pride alongside a simultaneously burgeoning underage workforce, questioning the usefulness of such economic growth in the eradication of poverty.
Camilo Dominguez, the program manager of the social action group Fundacion Telefonica, said that “in a country with a growing economy and an unemployment rate that remains around 12%, you have to ask why children are increasingly being exposed to work.”
“Approximately one in 10 children work in Colombia. That amounts to twice the population of Manizales [in the department of Caldas]…It must be a priority in this country to restore the rights of these children immediately and mobilize ourselves to discourage our society from allowing them to continue working,” he continued.
Colombia’s rural areas constitute the highest proportion of the child workers, as well as the most significant increase, with 37.3% of the child workforce associated with some form of agricultural work. Nevertheless, even a relatively low percentage of the 0.5% who work in mines still signifies that over 5,000 children risk their lives daily to work in those conditions.
The current law permits children to work up to 14 hours per week, although in the case of child workers this regulation is often flouted. Some 58% of child laborers work more than the allocated daily maximum for adult workers, while 11% work more than 48 hours a week.
The rise in the underage workforce has been primarily attributed to the global economic crisis that was particularly pertinent in between the years in the report, although Dominguez drew attention to the fact that it is not the most impoverished families that typically send their children to work.
“Interestingly, it is not the poorest families who put their children to work. As we noted in a study last year, it is in the middle income deciles where most child labour is concentrated and not the lowest,” he stated.
Melba Diaz, the goverment’s director of labor protection, meanwhile cautioned that even the high figures cited by DANE do not identify every child laborer has been accounted for, saying that “the capacity to identify where children are working failed.”
“There is hidden child labor, including sexual exploitation of children or in the marketplaces that we could not detect,” she said.
The official announced a change in protocol, transforming the biennial monitoring of the labor workforce into an annual study which is intended to “allow us to work immediately.”