International Child Labour Rights 2015: Progress and Challenges

On June 12, International Day Against Child Labour was observed under the theme “NO to Child Labour – YES to Quality Education.”  The International Labour Organisation (ILO) launched the World Day Against Child Labour in 2002 to focus attention on the global extent of child labour and the action and efforts needed to eliminate it but what impact has it had? Vanessa Thevathasan investigates.

A new report released by the ILO suggests there are still around 20 to 30 percent of children in low-income countries who complete their schooling and enter the labour market by the age of 15.   This means that today, 168 million children are in child labour, with 120 million of them aged 5 to 14 and as many as five million children are in slavery-like conditions.

ILO global estimates that 58.6% of child labourers aged between 5 and 17 work in the agricultural sector; 6.9% work in domestic work; 7.2% work in the industrial sector including mining, manufacturing and construction, and 25.4% work in services including retail trade, restaurants and transport. Early school leavers are less likely to secure stable jobs and are at greater risk of remaining outside the world of work altogether.

©Henri Ismail/Creative Commons License

©Henri Ismail/Creative Commons License

In Ghana, one of the world’s top ten gold producers, children working in the gold mines are at risk of serious injury, health problems and death. Human Rights Watch has urged Ghana’s mining industry to commit to enforcement of the law to prevent children working in dangerous, unlicensed gold mines. Companies must exert control to ensure the gold they buy is clean from exploitation.

HRW has recommended cash transfer programmes, appropriate youth employment options, and measures to make free primary education a reality in a bid to address underlying causes of child labour. These recommendations are not just specific to Ghana, rather they apply to all countries where children are at risk in the mining industry.  However, the lack of ground-level regulation of mines and enforcement of any of these recommendations will mean that the cycle of exploitation and abuse will likely continue unabated.

In India, one of the worst forms of slavery is bond labour, in which children are forced to work alongside their family to pay back debt from burrowed loans. As a result, millions of India’s children are denied an education and remain trapped in the cycle of poverty. In an effort to enforce a complete ban on the employment of children, amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012 was passed in May this year.

This legislation is groundbreaking for banning the employment of children in occupations including carpet weaving, soap manufacture, manufacture of explosives, and gem cutting. However, India remains only one of four to have not ratified the ILO international conventions on child labour, a critical problem given how India is a hotspot for child labour exploitation.


©Henri Ismail/Creative Commons License

©ILO in Asia and the Pacific/Creative Commons License

In Egypt, UNICEF reports that widespread poverty forces up to 15 percent of Egypt’s children into the workforce. As a result, the World Food Programme initiative of subsidising poor families to keep their children in school with 80 percent attendance has proven to be effective.  The value of the food items is designed to compensate for the wages a child would earn at work, giving families an incentive to keep children – especially girls – in school. WFP is using 60 million euro ($67.5 million) aid to target 100,000 children from 651 schools in the most deprived areas of Egypt

Particular attention should be given to the 47.5 million young people aged 15 to 17 in hazardous work and the special vulnerabilities of girls and young women around the world. Fairtrade International reports that girls in cocoa, sugar, cotton and tea-growing communities frequently suffer from sexual harassment. ILO Director-General Guy Ryder urges “National policies should be directed towards removing children and young people from hazardous jobs and removing the hazards in the workplace.”

Child labour is a global problem and not confined to lower-income countries. Beyond the regions of Asia, the Pacific and Saharan Africa that represent a large number of child labour practices, 12 million are in upper or middle-income countries. Data is harder to find in these countries since there is often not enough emphasis on child labour in high-income countries.

Ryder argues that keeping children in school and receiving a good education until at least the minimum age of employment, will determine the whole life of a child. It is the only way for a child to acquire the basic knowledge and skills needed for further learning, and for her or his future working life.” The rationale is that early interventions to get children out of child labour and into school as well as facilitating the transition from school to decent work opportunities for young people will prevent routes into child labour.

UNICEF reinforces this view: “Quality education gives children the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills. Offering free, but compulsory education of good quality is, therefore, key to ending child labour over and above eradicating poverty in developing countries.”  Free education is a panacea in many cases for children; since the catch 22 is that they are forced to work in order to pay for school fees, books, and uniforms which are not provided by the government for free.

As it stands, the international community will miss its targets towards the U.N. Millennium Development Goals on education, and the ILO goal to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by 2016. With the consolidation of the Sustainable Development Goals this September, governments, industry, development organisations, ethical certifiers and educational institutions must work together to produce the necessary law, policy and grassroots awareness to promote children’s rights.

Every effort must be made to protect against the exploitation of young people and promote their right to education, free from poverty and marginalisation.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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