A child of seven or eight, his face a mass of scars, stares numbly at his surroundings. Behind him nurses busy themselves patching up the tiny burned bodies of other ‘itinerant petrol-sellers’ - all paying dearly for a moment’s carelessness.
The picture appears in a new report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) - ‘Children at Work’. The petrol-sellers are among 50 million children under 15 years of age, who spend all or part of their days at work, four-fifths of them working unpaid for their families.
If the figure is 50 million, that means that only 3.8 per cent of the world’s children are ‘economically active’. Anyone who has been pestered by hordes of children selling or begging on the streets of Third World cities would believe the proportion to be much higher.
The ILO is against child labour of any kind, arguing that a young body is not sufficiently developed to carry out any kind of manual labour without suffering damage. The soft bones of growing children can be affected and the report quotes the case of 18-yearold students in Japan who were found to be, on average, four centimetres taller than a comparable group of young Japanese who had started work before they were 14.
In Peru poor children, working or not are physically worse off than rich children. The privileged child in Peru weighs on average four kilograms more than a child in a poor rural family and is eight centimetres taller.
For children in developing countries work starts at around seven years. A study in Bombay showed that a quarter of working children had started before the age of nine with three-quarters of them at work by the time they were 12. India indeed has the greatest number of working children - around 10 million - with the majority of them in the rural areas. Girls in general tend to work longer hours than boys because they are often in domestic service or working in the home.
The common factor that links working children around the world is, of course, poverty - the sheer economic necessity of helping the family to make ends meet.
The lives of Third World children are probably more closely linked with those of their parents than is the case in the West. Indeed there is a danger of setting working children aside as a special case and sentimentalising an economic problem.
As the ILO’s contributor from Peru points out: ‘To take the problem of ’ child labour out of a context which is characterised by growing unemployment and under-employment, an ever-widening gap between the incomes of the rich and poor and a pernicious imbalance between rural and urban development, would be to give a cariacature of the real state of affairs’.