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UN Ratifies First Unanimous Treaty on Child Labor

Peruvian Gisela Huamani, 11, carries flowers during a harvest at a field in a shantytown in Lima, May 26, 2005.

A global treaty sponsored by the U.N. International Labor Organization (ILO) calling for greater protection for children against sexual exploitation, forced labor and armed conflict was signed Tuesday by all member nations in the international forum.

Tonga, an island nation located in the Pacific, approved the treaty this week, making it the first U.N. labor treaty ratified by all 187 members. Ratified treaties are legally binding on all signatory governments.

International Labor Organization Director-General Guy Ryder attends a news conference after a meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Oct. 1, 2019.

“Universal ratification ... is (a) historic first that means that all children now have legal protection against the worst forms of child labor," ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said.

"It reflects a global commitment that the worst forms of child labor, such as slavery, sexual exploitation, the use of children in armed conflict or other illicit or hazardous work ... have no place in our society," he said in a statement.

According to the ILO, the number of child laborers plummeted to 152 million children in recent years, a sharp decline from its previous peak 20 years ago of 246 million. Most child workers are employed in the agricultural sector, and 73 million are placed in dangerous conditions while working.

Concern for this issue has risen in recent months amid the coronavirus pandemic and the strain on global and local economies. According to the Reuters news agency, some experts say the pandemic could reverse up to two decades of activism and progress in reducing child labor.

In June, the United Nations warned that child labor in the 5-11 age group was likely to rise during and after the pandemic as families grapple to make ends meet.

"The business community is both aware of and acting on the need to do business with respect for children's rights," said Roberto Suarez Santos, head of the International Organization of Employers (IOE), the world's largest private sector network.

Ending child labor is one of the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a set of global priorities created in 2015. The organization plans to eradicate the practice by 2025.