THE PLIGHT OF THE YOUNG
Updated: Feb 1
Children throughout the world are engaged in a great number of activities classifiable as work. These range from fairly harmless, even laudable, activities like helping out in the home, to physically dangerous, and morally objectionable ones like soldiering and prostitution. In the middle, we have the bulk of what is generally called ‘economic activity’. According to recent statistics by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a total of 152 million children, 64 million girls, and 88 million boys are in child labor. That is one in every ten children.
In India, it is not uncommon to come across children as young as six working as apprentices at local food joints, shops, and manufacturing units. Around 10 million children in India are engaged in child labour, the highest for any nation in the world.
Child labour and exploitation are the results of many factors, including poverty, social norms condoning them, lack of decent work opportunities for adults and adolescents, migration, and emergencies.
Why should we get rid of child labour?
Child labour is a violation of fundamental human rights and has been shown to hinder children’s development, potentially leading to lifelong physical or psychological damage. Working at such a tender age deprives them of their childhood. Children engaged in child labour are more likely to get injured and consequently disabled while working, because of their weak and developing physical features. Children subjected to long working hours are unlikely to attend school and therefore have limited opportunities to develop their human capital.
This in itself is enough incentive for those in power to engage with the issue of child labour. Nevertheless, there is another reason too; the practice of child labour is disastrous for not only those engaged in it but for the economy in general as well. The lack of growth of human capital due to child labour is likely to translate into weaker productivity growth which is the basis for improved living standards. Recent ILO studies have shown that the elimination of child labour in transitioning and developing economies could generate economic benefits much greater than the costs, which are mostly associated with an investment in better schooling and social services. So there exists an imperative to reduce child labour not only from a humanitarian perspective but from a purely economic perspective as well.
Where are child labourers employed?
According to a study by the ILO, the majority of the world's child labour (around 71 per cent) is engaged in the agriculture sector, including cotton plantations and rice fields. Around 17 per cent are employed as service staff, mainly as domestic workers or in restaurants, and another 12 per cent of child labour is spread across jobs in the industrial sector, including dangerous activities in mines.
Many child labourers in India are working for starvation wages in textile factories, helping with the processing of carpets, or doing back-breaking work in brick-making factories and quarries. Other child labourers work selling cigarettes, called "Bidis", on the street for the tobacco industry. Children are also used for cheap labour in industries such as steel extraction, gem polishing, and carpet manufacturing. A staggering number of girls are victims of child trafficking in India, whether through traditional bondage or organised crime. The commercial sexual exploitation of children is among the worst forms of child labour, and in India, there are around 1.2 million children involved in prostitution.
International Organisations on Tackling Child Labour
International organisations have increasingly been aware of the need to combat child labour for human rights and economic development reasons. During the past decade, the main international organisations involved in understanding child labour and its eradication have been the ILO, through the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), UNICEF, and the World Bank.
The ILO’s Minimum Age Convention (1973), ratified by 173 countries, set the standard for child labour legislation at the international forum. This fundamental convention sets the general minimum age for admission to employment or work at 15 years (13 for light work) and the minimum age for hazardous work at 18 (16 under certain strict conditions). It provides for the possibility of initially setting the general minimum age at 14 (12 for light work), where the economy and educational facilities are insufficiently developed.
Figure: A pictorial representation of the Minimum age Convention (1973)
This was followed by a more earnest approach to dealing with Child labour in the form of the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999). It requires ratifying states to eliminate the worst forms of child labour, including all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom, and forced or compulsory labour. It includes forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict, child prostitution and pornography, using children for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs, and work which is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children. The convention requires ratifying states to provide the necessary and appropriate direct assistance for the removal of children from the worst forms of child labour and for their rehabilitation and social integration. It also requires states to ensure access to free basic education and, wherever possible and appropriate, vocational training for children removed from the worst forms of child labour. The Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention has been ratified by 187 countries. International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) actions have been mainly oriented to encouraging countries to ratify the relevant ILO Conventions, and through technical co-operation, helping countries formulate policies and programs dealing with child labour.
UNICEF has emphasised the child labour problem from a human rights perspective, especially with a mandate guided by the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and proven strength in promoting basic education initiatives as the best strategy to combat child labour. Its programs include formal and non-formal education and support services to parents, as well as promoting stricter law enforcement against traffickers, providing services for street children, and changing cultural values that tolerate children’s exploitation.
The World Bank launched its Child Labour Programme in 1998. The program was established to develop knowledge and identify strategies to enhance the effectiveness of the World Bank's programs on children, notably through poverty alleviation strategies.
Child Labour Legislation in India
There are several laws against child labour in India. The factories act of 1948, and the mines act of 1952 prohibit the employment of anyone below 14 and 18 years of age respectively. Perhaps the most significant act against Child Labour is the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 which prohibits dangerous work or activities that could harm the mental, spiritual, moral, or social development of girls and boys under the age of 18.
The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009 mandates free education for all children aged 6 to 14 years. This was another step in tackling the problem of Child Labour. Additionally, The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) of Children Act of 2015 criminalized the act of keeping a child in bondage for employment.
Why Does Child Labour Still Persist? What can be done?
Despite the legislations, ILO Conventions and the general public consensus that Child Labour is a social evil, it persists. One of the reasons for this is the existence of several loopholes in the existing legislature. For instance, The Child Labour Act of 1984 has a significant loophole in that it allows the employment of children if the work is a part of a family business. Thus, having children sell cigarettes on the street could be considered legal if it is part of a family business. Additionally, numerous business leaders who employ children wield considerable social power by directly being elected in political office or having considerable influence on the elected representatives. These leaders may not be interested in banishing child labour from within their business operations for economic reasons and would use their power to inhibit compliance with the law. Hence there should be a renewed focus on strengthening the laws as well as effectively implementing the existing ones.
Nevertheless, the crux of the problem of child labour remains poverty. If one is to do away with child labour, poverty alleviation is the key.
It is poverty, more than any other factor, that forces children to give up the long-term gains possible through the means of education in exchange for the short-term gains of employment.
Coming to terms with this crucial reality helps one reach a lot of meaningful policy recommendations. If it is poverty that is causing child labour in the first place, providing free education, financial incentives to parents to educate their children, and food for school programs would greatly help in combating child labour. The financial incentives can also be provided based on the child’s performance at the school which would lead parents to put a greater emphasis on education.
· The Economics of Child Labor (2005) by Alessandro Cigno and Furio C. Rosati Census (2011)
· Child Labour: A textbook for university students (2004) by ILO
· ILO on Child Labor (Website)
· Combating Child Labour: A review of policies (2003), a report by the OECD
· Child Labour in India by by SOS Children’s Villages, Canada (Website)
Cover Image: Pexels
About the author: Aayush Maniktalia is a third-year student of international relations at O.P. Jindal Global University. He uses the pronouns he/him and has an avid interest in the field of organised crime and peace and conflict studies. Regionally he is inclined towards Latin America and Africa as an area of study. Besides being interested in global geopolitics he loves to do standup comedy and play badminton.