UNICEF summarized the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child as spelling out the “basic human rights that children everywhere have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life”. This convention is almost universally ratified. Despite this, child labour (something that in many cases violates at least three of the non-negotiable terms laid out in the Convention of the Rights of the Child) remains rampant in most of the world.
Despite this being such a widely known (and publicized) issue, the most recent estimate states that “127 million boys and 88 million girls are involved in child labour with 74 million boys and 41 million girls involved in the worst forms”. Child labour is an extremely complex, multi-faceted issue with roots including corruption of power, racism, sexism, cultural traditions and an uneven distribution of global wealth. In light of this, it is my contention that the international community is making strides to a future without child labour through targeting multiple angles and causes behind child labour.
This paper will try to analyze individual instruments the international community (ILO, UN) is using in its attempt to eradicate child labour. First, we will analyze the issues that come with the wide margin of understanding and opposing definitions of the term “child labour”. We will be reviewing the Minimum Age Convention of 1973 and establishing how this could help clear up misunderstanding, establishing the understandable dialogue between nations necessary for progress.
Next, we will be examining the efforts made to follow up and enforce these conventions laid out by the international community. In this section we will be looking at the Time Bound Programs initiative put forth by the ILO, assessing how effective and complete these initiatives are. Subsequently we will be zooming out somewhat, looking at how the uneven distribution of global wealth can create a vicious cycle of economic repression for the developing world and how this can be a catalyst for child labour.
We will probe deeper into what is being done to prevent wealthy nations from taking advantage of poorer economies in trade agreements, reviewing guidelines and instruments put in place by the WTO. One of the issues inhibiting the instatement of a global child labour discontinuation standard is the culturally varied understanding and interpretation of “child labour”. Both words in the phrase can vary in meaning from culture to culture, sometimes forming a wide margin of understanding.
Some cultures see childhood as a purely biological state (a child remains a child until puberty, consequently becoming an adult). Others see childhood as much more fluid, often lasting further than puberty and encompassing several different junctures (teenagehood, etc). The definitions of “labour” are similarly vague (hard labour, chores, familial duties etc). In an effort to combat the confusion and variability of the definition of child labour, the ILO instituted the Minimum Age Convention of 1973. In Article 2 of the Minimum Age Convention (No. 38) the ILO specified “The minimum age specified in pursuance of paragraph 1 of this Article shall not be less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case, shall not be less than 15 years. ” However, in light of the fragile state of some economies, the following paragraph (paragraph four) states “Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph 3 of this Article, a Member whose economy and educational facilities are insufficiently developed may, after consultation with the organizations of employers and workers concerned, where such exist, initially specify a minimum age of 14 years”.
The ILO adjusts this further in later articles of the Convention, stating “National laws or regulations may permit the employment or work of persons 13 to 15 years of age on light work which is (a) not likely to be harmful to their health or development; and (b) not such as to prejudice their attendance at school, their participation in vocational orientation or training programs approved by the competent authority or their capacity to benefit from the instruction received. (Note that Members can apply the ratifications of paragraph four article one to this section, thereby making the ages twelve to fourteen). In formally addressing the wide berth of what can be defined as child labour and narrowing the definition to a universally accepted medium (age in numerical years) the ILO laid groundwork for Member states to ratify Conventions and projects regarding child labour with a full understanding of what is being discussed. It is no secret that the UN and its subgroups (ILO included) are notoriously bad at establishing culpability for what its Members agree to.
The issue of monitoring the eradication of child labour is unfortunately no different. This is due to a number of factors including (but not limited to) the secrecy that often shrouds child labour, cultural clashes, the need to uphold a nation’s sovereignty, and the unwillingness for nations to get involved in business not directly affecting them. In an attempt to instill culpability to conventions such as the Minimum Age Convention and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (no. 182), the ILO has issued Time Bound Programs.
These programs work to establish each individual ratifying countries’ issues, focusing on the elimination of the worst forms of child labour (as established in the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention no. 182). The Time Bound Programs work with ratifying countries to first attempt removal of children from the worst forms of child labour, as well as attempting to eradicate the cause behind child labour in the first place. This includes working to establish alternative work options, familial reunion and establishing protection for child workers against mistreatment and abuse.
For example, Ecuador’s Time Bound Program focuses on providing meaningful education options for all children. They aim to support “sustainable education programs to break the cycle of child labor and broaden and improve the education system, especially in areas targeted by the Time-Bound Program (TBP). ” In placing set time periods on clear objectives, the ILO and IPEC make the daunting issue of child labour into smaller, attainable goals. The focus on set time periods makes progress far less likely to get pushed aside or forgotten.
In working with each ratifying nation individually to target multiple issues, the ILO is recognizing that child labour is not an issue that can be generalized or simplified. This awareness as to the depth and variability of root causes behind child labour is an extremely important step toward a better future. One of the most widely acknowledged causes behind child labour is widespread poverty due to a weak economy. Although there are many reasons for this, one of the most reprehensible and problematic is how the uneven distribution of global wealth can cause a vicious cycle that hurts developing nations.
Many developed nations enter trade agreements with the developing world that greatly inhibit growth and economic advancement. These types of agreements can include unfair taxes in favour of the developed country, rules regarding with whom the economically weaker country can and cannot trade with. Even merely opening up trade can flood developing markets with mass-produced goods far cheaper than what local workers can provide. This stunts economies to the point of desperation, causing rampant poverty leading to child labour, trafficking, etc.
The World Trade Organization was established to prevent this, running seminars educating developing worlds on how to break into the international market and monitoring international trade agreements. In educating nations about trade and monitoring how countries respond to being introduced to the global market, the UN/WTO attempts to even the playing field for countries otherwise disadvantaged. The establishment of the WTO also helps developed nations know that their actions and agreements will not go unnoticed, deterring rich countries from taking advantage of poorer nations.
This is essential for global development, raising economies and therefor raising wages and quality of work. Similar to most international issues, child labour is plagued with facets of complication. The fact is that child labour merely the symptom of a plethora of greater problems. Apathy, misunderstanding, corruption and poor circumstance all have a hand in making child labour the hot button issue rallied by hippies and suburban mothers alike.
In contrast to the views of first year Political Science students everywhere, there is no simple fix. Furthermore, the delicacy of the situation means actions put in place by outside sources have the possibility of setting off unforeseeable consequences. In light of this, the fight against child labour must be slow and handled with the utmost care. The international community is employing measures that both focus on the symptom (removing children from unsafe work) and the root cause (working to establish educational options and economic help).