By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, June 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — A campaign by Colombia to eradicate child labor discovered nearly 5,000 children working in the past three months, including hundreds from economically stricken Venezuela, the government said on Tuesday.
While child labor rates have fallen in recent years, overall about 850,000 children aged 5 to 17 are estimated to be working and not attending school full-time or at all, government figures show.
Of the 5,000 cases of child labor found, more than a third were uncovered by government mobile units on farms and streets, while under half were reported through a free telephone hotline, according to Colombia's child protection agency (ICBF).
Under Colombian law, children under 15 are not allowed to work and no child can be employed in a hazardous job that poses a risk to health or life.
"We have found children working in markets, in public spaces, at the traffic lights, in rural areas," Karen Abudinen head of ICBF, told media on Tuesday.
The ICBF has identified 350 Venezuelan children who were victims of child labor in Colombia since March, particularly in those provinces sharing a border with Venezuela, Abudinen said.
Child labor is a factory of inequality because a child who works does not have the same opportunities as those who are studying.
In Colombia's northern border city of Cucuta, Venezuelan teenagers can be seen working as street vendors, and young children beg with their parents on sidewalks.
About 672,000 Venezuelans have crossed into Colombia, legally and illegally, since 2015, according to Colombian authorities, fleeing economic turmoil and severe shortages of food and medicine.
Read More: Venezuela Could Be Facing a Malaria Crisis
Those migrating to Colombia without passports and work visas are vulnerable to labor exploitation, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Colombia has said.
Along with poverty, driving child labor rates are local cultural attitudes. Work is seen as building character, as a normal part of development and as a responsibility children have to contribute to the home.
Abudinen called it "a cultural problem that we can't ignore."
The concerted public awareness campaign against child labor began in February, which also aims to encourage people to come forward and report cases of children working.
"Child labor is a factory of inequality because a child who works does not have the same opportunities as those who are studying," Abudinen said in a statement.
Globally, 152 million children aged 5 to 17 are victims of forced labor, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Children toil in homes, mines, fields and factories, carrying heavy loads, working long hours, and suffering exposure to pesticides and other toxic substances, it said.
"Their very lives can be at risk," the ILO said in a statement on Tuesday.
The ILO said latest figures show from 2012 through 2016 that almost no progress was made on reducing child labor among the youngest aged 5 to 11, and the number of young children in hazardous work has increased.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)