Asia's teen dropouts head for future of unstable jobs, poverty: Experts

Nearly 3 million children working hazardous jobs

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Millions of teenagers in East and Southeast Asia are dropping out of school to do dangerous, low-skilled jobs, condemning them to a future of poverty even as economic growth in the region outstrips the rest of the world, experts said.

The World Bank has projected growth in the region at 6.7 per cent this year and next — compared to around three per cent globally. Yet experts say income inequalities in East and Southeast Asia are widening, and many poor children have no choice but to help support their families.

"We have had growth, but growth with increasing inequality, and child labour is a distressing part of this whole narrative," said Sukti Dasgupta, a Bangkok-based economist at the International Labor Organization.

"There is overwhelming evidence to show that if you spend a childhood in labour, your future is probably going to be an adult in unstable, precarious employment, continuous poverty."

A U.N. and World Bank analysis of data gathered from six countries — Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, Mongolia, Indonesia and Vietnam between 2009 and 2012 — found that about 14 per cent of children aged 15 to 17 — nearly 3 million children — were working hazardous jobs.

In Vietnam, 31 per cent of teenagers were deemed to be in dangerous jobs — working 43 hours or more per week, or employed in a hazardous industry, said the report from the Understanding Children's Work program.

In a region that supplies food, clothes and other goods to the world, many children work in agriculture or in low-wage, low-skilled manufacturing jobs, the experts said during a panel discussion on child labor in Bangkok.

This globalization of the labor market offers an opportunity for scrutiny by consumers in rich countries, said Dan Rono, a child protection specialist with Unicef.

Rono said many consumers are now asking, "How did I actually get this product? ... Who made this pen? How was it made? It's not just buying a particular brand. It's going into detail of how was this actually manufactured."

He noted that child labor is illegal and therefore hidden, and said he believes the problem could be much worse than indicated in the report - a joint research program involving Unicef, ILO and the World Bank.

Experts say for poor families and working children, alternative education options, such as "catch-up school" for children who dropped out, could help.

"There's a culture of wanting to get rich fast, and it's coming at the cost of bringing people along," said Simrin Singh, a child labor specialist with the ILO in Bangkok.

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