We must be committed to addressing child labour

child labour
Elizabeth Quinn

Elizabeth Quinn

10th December 2020

Child labour is an issue that is now commonly looked at from a human rights perspective, but this has not always been the case. Until the late 1980s, there was almost no discussion of the idea of freedom from child labour as a human right, and no operation programmes in place to address the issue of child labour. Rather, it was regarded as inevitable in much of the world due to economic circumstances. This changed in 1989 when the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted. The Convention’s ratification created an environment for the discussion on child labour to take place openly in international institutions such as the International Labour Organization (ILO).


Child labour is usually defined as work which deprives children of their potential and dignity and is harmful to their physical and mental development. Within the ILO, the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) was instrumental in informing the development of the Convention on the worst forms of child labour. They did this through research, information dissemination and implementation activities. IPEC work was grounded in the Conventions and development of decent work. It involved many stakeholders adhering to the tripartite approach which the ILO takes – including member states, workers’ organizations, and employers’ organisations. The projects taken on by IPEC aimed to ensure the best interest of the child and bring visibility to the widespread and harmful nature of child labour.


The ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour has become the only labour law Convention in the world to be universally ratified by all member states. Its universality is the result of long and persistent work undertaken by the ILO, IPEC and many NGOs, and sends a signal to all states that there is a global consensus that these forms of child labour are unacceptable. When children are in slavery, forced labour and trafficking, are forced to participate in armed conflict, and are used for prostitution or in hazardous work, action is immediately and urgently required. The ILO Convention’s ratification means that the elimination of child labour is firmly rooted as one of the fundamental principles and rights at work.


However, ratification does not equal elimination. This is clear from comments from ILO supervision on the Convention. For instance, in Angola, there is an emphasis in the report on children still working in the informal economy. The informal economy consists of independent, self-employed and small-scale producers and distributors who are not generally covered by the country’s labour laws and regulations. Countries still need to enforce and ensure implementation of the Convention is effective through inspection and clear legal frameworks. In New Zealand, hazardous work was found to exist for children under 18 which contravenes the Convention. This meant that in 2006 about 300 children under 15 years old visited the doctor for a work-related injury.


The Covid-19 crisis, however, puts the achievements that have been made in the prevention of child labour at risk, increasing economic insecurity and affecting many low-income families.

The other major convention on child labour is the Minimum Age Convention. This Convention, in contrast, is not universally ratified, meaning that not all countries have signed both Conventions – this can be problematic in tackling child labour holistically. This Convention is in place to achieve the abolition of child labour by prescribing minimum wages for work. National policy must also be designed to ensure the effective abolition of child labour, but there is flexibility in the Convention. For example, Article 8 allows for an exception for artistic performances of children, with safeguards as permits are needed to limit the number of hours and prescribe the conditions of work.


This exception has not kept pace with the recent development of the child influencer. Ryan Kaji, one of the top child influencers, has been placed as one of Youtube’s top earners with a fortune of $26 million. These child influencers do not have prescribed conditions and hours of work. People argue that this is not child labour as it does not involve work, and the children are enjoying themselves. The reality is that for a lot of children work is involved. They are brand ambassadors, have paid sponsorships and are considered by brands as influencers. These child influencers are working without protection, and have fallen outside the international labour law protections. This precarity is being looked at by countries such as France which has introduced new legislation to protect young child influencers. This new legislation aims to regulate the hours under-16-year-olds can work online and what happens to their earnings. This legislation should also start a conversation in the ILO on campaigns that need to be initiated to ensure that child labour laws around the world remain in tune with reality.


The Covid-19 crisis, however, puts the achievements that have been made in the prevention of child labour at risk, increasing economic insecurity and affecting many low-income families. As a result, the root causes of child labour such as poverty are likely to be exacerbated. The closure of schools and a significant loss of parents’ income may amount to an increase in child labour. IPEC has been examining solutions to this problem, such as raising awareness, supporting countries, providing education to adapt to the new situation and advocating for the prolongation of socio-economic measures to strengthen national budgets for vulnerable populations. Social dialogue should be something which is prioritised in providing solutions to these issues. The children and families who will be most affected by the pandemic should be listened to. While governments ultimately create public policies, other voices are needed to shape these policies and ensure nobody is getting left behind. As 2021 is the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, the is ILO planning to raise awareness of the issue to accelerate progress and eliminate child labour in all its forms. This is welcome news; high labour standards and protection from the worst forms of child labour are needed, now more than ever, to prevent the entrenchment of even deeper inequality.



Featured photo by Luis Prado from the Noun Project



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