Protecting Children’s Rights: Ending the Worst Forms of Child Labor


SEATTLE — June 2019 will mark 20 years since the International Labour Organization (ILO) passed Convention Number 182. Ratifying nations resolved through the convention to criminalize and eliminate the worst forms of child labor, then set out for the first time. To date, 182 nations have adopted the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, most recently joined by India in 2017, but a handful of nations have not, including Puerto Rico, Bhutan, Andorra, Bermuda, Guam, Palestine and Hong Kong. 

Any work involving people under 14 years old is considered illegal child labor, and it is a persistent problem across much of the world involving an estimated 152 million children in 2016. It’s a particular issue in developing countries where poverty and conflict pressure children to work; Africa has an estimated 72 million child laborers, the largest number in the world, followed by the Asia Pacific region at 62 million. Recent cases like the mass kidnappings of Yazidi children in Iraq, many of whom are slaves or child soldiers, and raids on factories in China employing hundreds of trafficked children demonstrate the continued urgency of the issue depsite international regulation and monitoring.

Worst Forms of Child Labor

The ILO is a specialized agency of the U.N. and the leading international authority on the regulation and monitoring of child labor. It has targeted its elimination efforts according to four features that characterize the worst forms of child labor:

  • Enslavement consists of practices in which children are trafficked for use in forced labor of any kind, drafting children as child soldiers in armed conflicts, serfdom, slavery and debt bondage, in which a child is sold to pay off money owed by their family.
  • Sexual Exploitation includes the trafficking or coercion of children into prostitution, production of pornographic material and pornographic or sexualized performance.
  • Involving children in Illicit Activity like the manufacturing of drugs or use of children as drug mules, forcing a child into organized beggary, or inciting them to any activity illegal under national law including shoplifting or robbery is considered illegal child labor.
  • Work Likely to Cause Harm to a child’s moral development, harm to their health due to unsanitary environments or exposure to toxic substances, work involving activities that could stunt growth or subject a child to abuse as well as any labor depriving a child of education is also a priority.

Signs of Progress

The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child was signed in 1989 and ratified by every country but Somalia and the United States, recognizing for the first time the specific struggles and rights of children. Today, the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) specifically address the challenge of child labor as an area of focus. Goal 8.7 sets a target for the total elimination of child labor by 2025. Progress since 2000 has been very encouraging, yet the rate of decrease in the number of child laborers worldwide has slowed, with only a 1 percent decrease between 2012 and 2016 from a previous 3 percent drop between 2008 and 2012.

Challenges to Elimination

Key challenges fueling the persistence of child labor continue to make eradication efforts difficult, even reversing progress in sub-Saharan Africa. Over two-thirds of underage children who work are involved in family businesses, indicating the ingrained culture of exploitation in many cultures, in which sending children to work is considered a parental right and customary practice.

Conflict and political upheaval also significantly increase the chances that a child will enter into work. Arab states, particularly among displaced Syrians, have seen a dramatic increase in child labor during recent periods of conflict. As long as conflict persists, eliminating the child labor on which many families depend will remain an arduous challenge.

Future of the Campaign

The ILO works with many governments and NGOs around the world to monitor child labor, prevent the conditions which cause it and remove children from hazardous environments. Recent efforts are focused on education as an alternative, with collaboration between officials and teachers to monitor local children who are not attending school in favor of work or who are considered at risk. Cooperation from employers’ organizations and workers’ unions is also critical.

The biggest concerns for those involved, however, are inadequate progress, knowledge and funds. Data on the causes of slowing progress in sub-Saharan Africa and the effectiveness of policies already in place is hampering further efforts to eliminate the worst types of child labor. But it is the massive need for financial aid to developing countries struggling to enforce international laws that could prove most threatening.

– Marissa Field

Photo: Pixabay


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