The International Labour Organization (ILO) introduced the World Day Against Child Labour in 2002 as part of its efforts to eradicate this unacceptable phenomenon. The day is observed each year on 12 June, and this year the focus will be on how to achieve the international commitments to end all forms of child labour by 2025 and improve health and safety for young people in employment. It is also an opportunity to consider what measures have been taken at international and EU level to prevent child labour, and with what success.
The UN defines child labour as work performed by children who are under the minimum age legally specified for that kind of work, or work that is considered unacceptable for children and prohibited because of its detrimental nature or conditions. Not all work performed by children is considered child labour. Forms that do not interfere with childhood and schooling, are beneficial to a child’s personal and social development and provide useful experience and skills are permitted under international standards.
Global trends. The ILO’s latest global estimates show that of the 218 million children in employment in 2016, 152 million were victims of child labour – and of these, nearly half (73 million) were engaged in its worst forms, including hazardous work endangering their safety or health. Although this represents a significant reduction from the estimated 246 million children in child labour in 2000, progress slowed considerably between 2012 and 2016, particularly for children under the age of 12 and amongst girls. Africa remains the region with highest rate of child labour (19.6 %), compared with between 3 % and 7 % in other regions. Globally, child labour is concentrated in agriculture (71%), services (17%) and industry (12%). Although the phenomenon of child labour is more commonly associated with non-EU countries, in spite of a lack of reliable comprehensive statistical sources, there is evidence that child labour persists in the EU and Europe as well.
Root causes. It is believed that child labour is commonly driven by family and community poverty paired with lack of access to decent work for adults and youth (income insecurity, inadequate wages), weak social protection and lack of free, good quality, public education and other public services.
Future goals. The ILO’s initial goal was to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by 2016. However, despite its efforts, supported by increasing commitment from countries all over the world, and notable progress, that goal has still to be achieved. The UN Sustainable Development Goals, and Goal 8 in particular, set the targets of eliminating all forms of child labour by 2025 and ensuring safe and secure working environments for all workers by 2030. The ILO has highlighted the large number of adolescents aged between 15 and 17 involved in hazardous work and connections between ensuring decent work for young people and eliminating child labour. This will be also be the focus for the ILO campaign and European Commission event in 2018.
International legal framework for combating child labour
Since its establishment in 1919, the ILO has been committed to the abolition of child labour as one of its main goals. It has played a crucial role in raising awareness of the importance of eliminating child labour, as well as in establishing widely recognised standards. Three major international conventions establish the legal framework for national action against child labour:
ILO Convention No 138 on the minimum age for admission to employment and work, adopted in 1973, has been ratified by 169 countries, including all European Union (EU) Member States. It is a crucial document that lays down the standards for minimum age for employment, calling on the parties to set the minimum age for employment at 15 (Article 2.3) or at least 18 for hazardous work (Article 3.1). It also emphasises the importance of taking all necessary steps to ensure the effective abolition of child labour.
ILO Convention No 182 on the worst forms of child labour, adopted in 1999, has been ratified by 180 countries, including all EU Member States, and is known to have been the fastest ratification in the history of the ILO. It calls on members to ensure immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour as a matter of urgency (Article 1).
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) adopted in 1989, has been ratified by 196 countries, including all EU Member States. In the framework of prohibiting child labour, the CRC confers upon children the right 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 (Article 32). Although it does not specify a minimum age for employment, it urges parties to stipulate one as well as to regulate hours and conditions of employment and provide penalties and sanctions.
EU action to combat child labour
The EU’s strong commitment to eliminating child labour is reflected in Article 32 of the 2012 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (CFR), which prohibits the employment of children and stipulates that the minimum age of employment may not be lower than the minimum school-leaving age. The main legal instrument prohibiting child labour in the EU is Council Directive 94/33/EC. It allows Member States to set the minimum age for employment below the minimum school-leaving age only exceptionally, in Article 4.2. No major difficulties have been encountered with the transposition of the directive into national law; most Member States already had legislation providing for the prohibition of child labour prior to the adoption of the directive.
There is also an external dimension to the fight against child labour, and to the EU’s full commitment to its eradication. Building upon a document from 2010, the Commission Staff Working Document, Trade and Worst Forms of Child Labour, SWD(2013) 173 provides the framework for understanding the complexity of the issue, emphasising the link between trade and child labour, and pointing out the positive impact of economic growth on the elimination of the worst forms of child labour. More recently, a Commission Staff Working Document, SWD(2017) 147, addresses child labour in the context of promoting sustainable garment value chains through EU development action. The Council of the EU has, meanwhile, reaffirmed its strong commitment to eliminating child labour, particularly its worst forms, and stressed the importance of eradicating the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict, including child soldiers.
The European Parliament has addressed the issue of child labour and its various forms within and outside the EU in a number of resolutions, condemning it and calling for measures that would facilitate its elimination. For example, in 2010, Parliament called for all future trade agreements to provide for a ban on the exploitation of child labour. Subsequent resolutions, on the EC-Uzbekistan partnership and cooperation agreement (2011) and on child labour in the cocoa sector (2012) repeated that call, with specific reference to forced child labour, while the 2013 resolution on the global cotton value chain referred to a traceability mechanism for goods produced through child or forced labour. More recently a Parliament resolution on the EU flagship initiative on the garment sector (2017) calls on the Commission to propose binding legislation on due diligence obligations for supply chains in the sector including standards for the elimination of forced and child labour.