Since 2000 the number of child laborers worldwide has dropped by one-third, from 248 million to 168 million, according to new statistics just released by the International Labor Organization (ILO). While the progress is encouraging, the number of children still engaged in child labor is staggering.

The global figures only tell part of the story. In hundreds of interviews, my colleagues and I at Human Rights Watch have documented how these children live and the toll their work takes on their lives, their education, and their future. In Morocco last year, I spoke with Latifah, who was recruited when she was 12 to work in Casablanca as a domestic worker. She hoped it would offer her a better life, but instead she suffered beatings, verbal abuse, and toiled for 18 hours a day, cooking, doing laundry, cleaning floors, washing dishes, and caring for her employer’s children. 

In Tanzania, we met Adam, who works in gold mining, one of the most dangerous forms of child labor. One day while digging in a shaft, the pit collapsed. “I thought I was dead,” Adam said. “I was so frightened.”

Child labor is also a problem in developed countries. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of children work as hired laborers in agriculture and are excluded from the child labor laws that protect children in other jobs. Maria, who started working in the fields at age 11, told us, “Every teenager should do at least a day and see how it is to work a real job. You sweat. You walk until your feet hurt, you have blisters, and until you have cuts all over your hands.”

Child labor perpetuates cycles of poverty and puts the education, health, and often the very lives of children at risk. The new ILO statistics should prompt governments to take even stronger measures to end exploitative and dangerous child labor, by better enforcing child labor laws, ensuring children go to school, and prosecuting the employers who exploit children.