There are many international legal instruments that outlaw child labour. However, there are more than 250 million children in the world who are involved in child labour because of various reasons including poverty in families that force children to work to help their families and weak labour laws that do not punish sectors benefiting from child labour among other reasons. The author discusses about other reasons, consequences of child labour and offers a number of recommendations to end that cruel practice.
Violations of human rights and freedoms, as Derechos Human Rights (2008) has noted, take many forms, among which include genocide, slavery, torture, mass disappearances of individuals, denial of the freedom of speech, and repudiation of freedom of the press. With respect to violations relating to “children’s rights and freedoms,” the following assessment paraphrased from an IRIN (2007) online publication and a British Broadcasting Corporation (2004) news report regarding violations of such rights and freedoms in selected African countries provides a good example:
“Women and girls are raped and sexually abused by perpetrators from different parties to conflicts in the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, the Sudan, and Uganda; and children are recruited as combatants and sex slaves in Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, and the Sudan.”
This article is designed to provide a survey of the following themes relating to violations of the rights and freedoms of children worldwide: (a) the basic rights of children; (b) the issue of child labour; (c) the nature of child labour; (d) the causes of child labour; (e) the negative and beneficial effects of child labour; and (f) solutions to the spectre of child labour.
The basic rights of children
By and large, the rights and freedoms of individuals enshrined in national constitutions, regional charters and the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights also apply to children. However, children have additional rights provided for by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which, according to UN Children’s Fund (2007), was adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989.
The Convention is a universally agreed set of non-negotiable standards and obligations, which prescribe minimum children’s entitlements and freedoms that need to be respected by governments worldwide, and which are founded on respect for the dignity and worth of each individual child regardless of race, colour, gender, language, religion, opinions, origins, wealth, birth status, or ability (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2009).
It prescribes the basic human rights that children everywhere should have; that is: 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 (UN Children’s Fund, 2007)[[i]].
By assenting to the provisions of the Convention, UN member-countries recognised the need for a set of special rights for children because members of society who are less than 18 years of age often need special care and protection (UN Children’s Fund, 2007).
The issue of child labour
Countries which are signatories to the UNCRC have recognised, in Article 32(1), “the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development” (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2009).
Other global accords relating to the protection of any given country’s children from harsh and/or exploitative forms of child labour include the following (see Cornell University, 2005):
- The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), the world’s largest technical cooperation programme on child labour under the aegis of the International Labour Organisation (ILO);
- ILO’s Minimum Age Convention No. 138 of 1973, whose aim is the effective abolition of child labour for children under 15 years of age; and
- ILO’s Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention No. 182 of 1999, which focuses on the abolition of the worst forms of child labour for children under 18 years of age.
In the remainder of this article, let us consider the following: the nature of child labour, the causes of child labour, the negative and positive effects of child labour, approaches to the elimination of child labour, and the trafficking of children.
The nature of child labour
ILO (2009) has defined the term “child labour” to refer to work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and work that is harmful to their physical and mental development – that is, work that is mentally, physically, socially, or morally dangerous and harmful to children and interferes with their schooling by:
- Depriving them of the opportunity to attend school;
- Obliging them to leave school prematurely; or
- Requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with tedious, and/or excessively long hours of work.
The UN Children’s Fund (2007), on the other hand, has defined “child labour” as work that exceeds the permitted maximum number of hours a child is expected to be engaged in work per week, depending on the age of the child and the types of work involved – the age limits, maximum number of hours and types of work being as follows (see UN Children’s Fund, 2008):
- Ages 5-11: At most 1 hour of economic work or 28 hours of domestic work per week;
- Ages 12-14: At most 14 hours of economic work or 28 hours of domestic work per week; and
- Ages 15-17: At most 43 hours of economic or domestic work per week.
In its extreme form, child labour, according to Edmonds (2005) and Free the Children (2009), includes situations whereby children are enslaved, engaged in organised begging, coerced into prostitution, conscripted into armed forces, engaged in drug trafficking, and/or relegated to other forms of child labour that are harmful or hazardous to the health, safety or morals of young children.
In 2005, there were approximately 250 million child labourers between 5 and 17 years of age around the world, and roughly 180 million of them were engaged in the worst forms of child labour (Cornell University, 2005). During the same year, around 2.5 million child labourers were economically active in developed economies, 2.4 million in transition economies, 127.3 million in Asia and the Pacific, 17.4 million in Latin America and the Caribbean, 48 million in sub-Saharan countries, and 13.4 million in the Middle East and North Africa.
The causes of child labour
According to Nyumbu and Poulsen (2009) and ILO (2014), the primary cause of child labour is the extreme vulnerability of poor and low-income households to economic shocks. In their view, child labour is generally “a coping strategy when adult breadwinners die, lose their jobs or fall ill, when natural disaster strikes, or when families are simply unable to make ends meet.”
The prevalence of extreme poverty in some countries around the world can, therefore, be said to have compelled some parents and guardians to be oblivious to minor children in their households getting employed in order to make a contribution to the improvement of their families’ economic welfare.
The incidence of child labour can, of course, be attributed to a number of other factors, including the following, which are cited by the University of Iowa (2009), Tripod (2009) and Nadu (2009):
- The tradition of attempting to instil a sense of responsibility in children and equipping them with valuable skills at an early age;
- The presence of large numbers of orphaned and neglected children in a country, who often find it inevitable to seek employment in order to meet their basic needs;
- Limited access to free and compulsory formal education in some countries, which prompts some families with limited incomes to allow under-age children to seek employment;
- Widespread unemployment, particularly in economically laggard countries, which makes it inevitable for minor children to seek employment alongside their parents or guardians;
- Lack of stringent labour laws and regulations pertaining to the hiring of under-age children;
- Inadequate enforcement (by government authorities) of existing labour laws and regulations relating to under-age children;
- Violation of existing labour laws and regulations relating to minor children by employers;
- Repressed rights of workers by employers (such as the right to join or establish labour unions) designed to water down labour standards, including standards pertaining to the hiring of under-age children;
- Age and industry-based exemptions in labour laws and regulations. Bangladesh, for example, has specified the minimum age for work, but has no age limits on domestic or agricultural work. In Kenya, children under 16 years of age are prohibited from industrial work, excluding agricultural work;
- Competition by countries for foreign investment by multinational companies seeking low labour costs, which makes some countries less stringent on adhering to international labour standards relating to the hiring of young children. And/or
- Lack of or inadequate political will and commitment to address the foregoing potential causes of child labour.
Dire effects of child labour
Involvement of under-age children in wage labour can be mentally, emotionally and physically taxing on them. Besides, it can condemn children to a life of unskilled and poorly paid occupations (see Tripod, 2009). As the UN Children’s Fund (2009:i) has observed, “Children forced out of school and into labour to help their families make ends meet are denied the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for gainful future employment, thereby perpetuating the cycle of poverty.”
Moreover, child labour, as maintained elsewhere in this article, is likely to interfere with a child’s schooling by depriving him or her of the opportunity to attend school, obliging him or her to quit school prematurely, or requiring him or her to try to strike a balance between schooling and work.
In the remainder of this section, let us consider the following questions posed by Basu (1997): “Should child labour be banned outright? Should the World Trade Organization be given the responsibility of discouraging child labour using trade sanctions?”
Not all forms of child labour need to be targeted for elimination. While every effort needs to be made to eliminate the extreme forms of child labour cited earlier in this article, other forms of child labour are acceptable as long as the maximum number of hours children are supposed to work, the types of work involved, and the age limits of children involved are observed.
In passing, let us consider what is implied by the following excerpts:
- Asghar (2000:B9): “The West can push to end child labour in a Nike factory, but where do the youngsters go then? Poverty is more dangerous for those kids than working in a Nike factory.”
- Kaunda (2009): “We have thousands of [children] … who roam the streets of our major cities without a modicum of hope. They have no access to health or educational facilities; they grow up without vocational skills.”
- Free the Children (2009): “Sometimes, work does not harm children. Work may even help them to learn new skills or to develop a sense of responsibility.”
- Edmonds (2005): “Poor parents in developing countries face a difficult decision. Children can make a productive economic contribution to their family by helping in the family farm or business, working in the formal labour market, or providing domestic services to their household. In these ways, children help feed, shelter, clothe, and otherwise support themselves, their siblings, and other family members.”
The first and second excerpts above teach us something important lessons about efforts to end child labour, particularly in poor countries: that it is irresponsible to stop children from engaging in work without creating programmes and facilities that are designed to keep them occupied and prevent them from committing crimes and misdemeanours on the streets.
The third excerpt reminds us of the value of child labour in instilling a sense of responsibility in children and equipping them with valuable skills at an early age. The fourth excerpt, on the other hand, speaks to the value of child labour in enhancing the livelihoods of poor families, particularly in economically beleaguered economies worldwide.
Solutions to the spectre
There are many ways in which under-age children can be protected from economic exploitation, and from performing work that is likely to interfere with their physical, spiritual or intellectual development. They include the following measures and imperatives, which should be pursued by national governments:
- Poverty reduction partly through low taxes and interest rates designed to stimulate investments and consumption and ultimately bolster the creation of jobs and a cornucopia of goods and services.
- Provision for public welfare assistance schemes and other forms of social protection designed to provide monetary and material assistance to the needy, which should preferably be managed by autonomous government agencies to reduce politically clutched distribution of cash, relief food, and other welfare benefits.
- Provision of free and compulsory education from Grade 1 through Grade 12, and low-interest educational loans and merit-based financial grants for vocational training and tertiary education.
- Enactment and effective enforcement of laws and regulations against hazardous and exploitative work (such as child prostitution, military conscription and mining), and all forms of work that exposes children to toxic substances or extreme temperatures (see Free the Children, 2009).
- Enactment and effective enforcement of pieces of legislation designed to regulate moderate forms of child labour, particularly with respect to permissible types of work, age limits and the maximum number of hours under-age children are expected to work per week. And
- Implementation of measures provided for by ILO’s Minimum Age Convention No. 138 of 1973, ILO’s Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention No. 182 of 1999, IPEC, and UNCRC.
A summing up
In this article, the following themes relating to violations of the rights and freedoms of children are examined: (a) the basic rights of children; (b) the issue of child labour; (c) the nature of child labour; (d) the causes of child labour; (e) the negative and beneficial effects of child labour; and (f) solutions to the spectre of child labour.
The rights and freedoms of individuals enshrined in national constitutions, regional charters and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights apply to children too. Children, however, have additional rights provided for by the UNCRC, which was adopted and opened for signatures, ratification and accession by General Assembly Resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989 (see UN Children’s Fund, 2007).
* Henry Kyambalesa is Adjunct Professor in the School for Professional Studies at Regis University, Denver, Colorado, United States of America. He can be contacted at <[email protected]>
Asghar, Rana Jawad, “It’s Hard, But Some Children Must Work,” Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2000, p. B9.
Basu, Kaushik, “Child Labour: Cause, Consequence, and Cure, with Remarks on International Labour Standards,” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 2027, December 1998.
BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), “Amnesty Deplores African Rights Record,” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3749633.stm/, 26 May 2004.
Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labour Relations (ILR), “Child Labour in Africa,” http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/, 2005.
Edmonds, Eric V., “Understanding Child Labour: Patterns, Types and Causes,” http://www.america.gov/, 11 May 2005.
Faye, Abdou, “Education: Europe, North America Tapping Africa’s ‘Brain Reservoir’,” Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency: http://www.ipsnews.net/-africa/, 27 December 2003.
IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks), “The Shame of War: Sexual Violence against Women and Girls in Conflict,” http://lastradainternational.org/lsidocs/IRIN-TheShameofWar-fullreport-Mar07.pdf: February 2007.
Kyambalesa, Henry, “Global Issues and Challenges,” Chapter 6 (manuscript), 2019.
Labour Commissioner, The: State Child Labour Rehabilitation cum Welfare Society, “Causes of Child Labour,” http://www.tnchildlabour.tn.gov.in/, Tamil Nadu (India), 10 September 2009.
Nyumbu, Sifuniso and Poulsen, Birgitte, “The Global Crisis and Rising Child Labour in Zambia’s Mining Communities: Are We facing a Downward Decent Work Spiral?” International Labour Organization: http://www.ilo.org/, 10 August 2014.
The Financial Gazette, “Massive Staff Exodus Hits ZMDC,” 14-20 October 2004, p. C5.
The Sunday Mail (Zimbabwe), “Shortage of Lecturers at UZ Persists Unabated,” 24 October 2004, p. 5.
Tripod, “Causes of Child Labour,” http://members.tripod.com/, 7 October 2009.
University of Iowa, “Causes of Child Labour: The Child Labour Education Project,” http://www.continuetolearn.uiowa.edu/, 1 October 2009.
[i] The 54 Articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child are presented at:
http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx accessed 30 May 2018