There are an estimated 168 million child laborers worldwide, 85 million of whom work in hazardous conditions, many trapped and forced to work with no way out, according to the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency based in Switzerland.
For many, the problem is nothing but a statistic. But the numbers overwhelmed Isiro León-York, children's faces becoming all too real. A coffee farm owner in Nicaragua, León-York uses a portion of his farm's profits to fund a school for his employees' kids and has pledged to continue to provide his workers and their families with decent wages, health care and food.
León-York's efforts to eliminate child labor in the country's coffee business have blossomed to include the creation of a network of coffee growers and plantation owners who have committed to follow his lead. His extraordinary efforts were recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday — led by President Obama's sole Hispanic cabinet member, Tom Perez — when he was awarded the Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor.
Nicaraguan children are employed as domestic servants in third-party homes where they work long hours, face abuse and are exposed to intense heat and dangerous machinery. Kids are even hired as "bus drivers' assistants," often riding outside the buses while they are moving.
Of the more than 100,000 child laborers ages 5-14 in Nicaragua, an estimated 71 percent are in agriculture. The statistic makes sense considering Nicaragua's economy is the least developed country in Central America and has traditionally relied on exports of coffee, bananas and sugar.
Nicaragua consistently experiences trade deficits and its economy is highly dependent on remittances from Nicaraguan immigrants living in the U.S. In fact, remittances totaled $1.1 billion in 2013, up from $891 million in 2008.
There is a silver lining for the lingering problem of child labor exploitation in Latin America. At 12.5 million, Latin America and the Caribbean have the fewest child laborers of any of the world's most troubled regions, according to the U.N.'s International Labor Organization.
León-York's efforts are actually an example of a concerted effort by Latin American countries to eliminate child labor which began in 2005, when countries made a commitment at the Summit of Americas. Of the world's top eight nations that have taken significant steps to solve their child labor issues, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru have made "meaningful efforts" to combat child labor, according to ILO.
Nicaragua has been recognized for its moderate pushes to change child-labor, but efforts from León-York are not going unnoticed. The Iqbal Masih Award was created by U.S. Congress in 2009 and is named after a Pakistani child sold into bonded labor as a carpet weaver at age four who managed to escape, becoming an advocate for children's rights, but whom was later killed in at age 12 in 1995. Since then, the Department of Labor has been supporting efforts to fighting child labor worldwide.
"Every day, millions of children around the world toil under dangerous and exploitative conditions, producing agricultural goods for the marketplace. Isidro León-York exemplifies the positive role that the private sector can play combating harmful child labor," said Carol Pier, deputy undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of International Labor Affairs."
The Nicaraguan businessman is nothing short of an exemplary role model, Pier said.
"This award is a tribute to all those private-sector leaders, who like Mr. León-York, have embraced this role as a better way of doing business," she said.