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Fighting child labour: an EU external action priority

Written by Ionel Zamfir,

Poor beggar child eating charity food

© Arpad Nagy-Bagoly / Fotolia

As the world celebrates the Universal Children’s Day on 20 November, it is important to remember that many children are still victims of grave abuses. One of these is child labour. Many children, particularly in developing countries worldwide, continue to be used in child labour, despite a comprehensive international normative framework that prohibits child labour and extensive efforts by governments, international organisations and civil society to eradicate it. It is important to distinguish ‘child labour’ – which is banned and has to be fully eradicated – from orms of work that children can acceptably perform, for example at home, or when they are training, and that contribute to their skills, development and well-being. To the contrary, ‘child labour’ is usually defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to their physical and mental development. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989, states that children must ‘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’. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has set a minimum age for admission to employment and defined the worst forms of child labour in two specific conventions: ILO Convention No 138 (1973), concerning the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment; and ILO Convention No 182 (1999), concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. According to the former, the minimum age for employment is 15 years (or 13 years for light work and 18 years for hazardous work). However there is a certain flexibility for developing countries. The worst forms of child labour include – besides work that is generally harmful to children – all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, the use of a child for prostitution or pornography, as well as the use of a child for illicit activities (such as trafficking drugs).

Child labour remains widespread. ILO estimates indicate that child labour has only slightly decreased in recent years: the proportion of children aged 5 to 17 years engaged in child labour fell by only 1 % over the 2012-2016 period, from 168 million to 151.6 million. The highest share by far of children in child labour was in Sub-Saharan Africa, with 22.4 % of 5 to 17 year-olds affected – a slight increase compared to 2012. According to ILO, ‘most child labour takes place within the family unit. More than two-thirds of all children in child labour work as contributing family labourers’. A common assumption about child labour is that it is caused by poverty. However research on the issue paints a more complex picture: in rural households, child labour is also perpetuated by social values and by its perceived value as a form of training for future adult life in rural settings.

Child labour takes place in numerous economic sectors, but it is most prevalent in agriculture. According to ILO, children usually work for small family farms and rural enterprises. This often renders their labour invisible, and therefore difficult for authorities to tackle. Children who work in the production of locally consumed agricultural products also receive less public attention than those who produce for international supply chains, such as coffee, cocoa, tobacco or cotton, where international eradication campaigns have been launched. Despite these efforts, however, child labour persists in these sectors too. According to the Cocoabarometer 2018, ‘Child labour remains at very high levels in the cocoa sector, with an estimated 2.1 million children working in cocoa fields in the Ivory Coast and Ghana alone’ (the two countries are the main producers of cocoa worldwide). Numerous voluntary initiatives have been set up to deal with the issues of child labour in global value chains, involving multinational companies, local producers, governments, NGOs and consumers. However their effectiveness is limited and disputed.

Children also work in textile factories and workshops (e.g. in South Asia), in the fishing industry (e.g. in Thailand), in mines extracting gold, diamonds and other minerals (such as cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo). Many of those who work outside their families are in forms of employment that amount to forced labour and enslavement, having often been trafficked and with their freedom of movement severely curtailed.

What does the EU do to fight child labour in the world?

The EU puts a special emphasis on protecting the internationally recognised rights of the child worldwide. To increase the coherence and consistency of relevant policies, the EU Council has adopted the EU Guidelines on the rights of the child, which it revised in 2017. These list the fight against the worst forms of child labour as one of their objectives. The EU also adopted Guidelines on Children and Armed Conflict in 2008.

The EU promotes respect for the rights of the child and fights child labour through its external policies. The human rights clause that is systematically included in its trade and cooperation agreements covers all human rights, including the rights of the child. The trade and sustainable development (TSD) chapters included in more recent EU trade agreements refer to the parties’ obligations under ILO norms, including those relevant to child labour. For example, the EU did not grant preferences in textile trade to Uzbekistan until the country largely eradicated child (forced) labour in cotton harvesting, in cooperation with ILO. The European Parliament blocked the initial deal in 2011, and only gave its consent in 2016, when it considered the issue as solved. The Parliament also insists that the eradication of child labour is included among the general principles that should guide the modernisation of existing EU trade agreements, e.g. with Chile.

A similar conditionality is contained in the EU’s unilateral Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), which targets developing countries. The International Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as the ILO Conventions on minimum age, and on the prohibition of the worst forms of child labour are listed in Annex VIII of the EU GSP Regulation among the international conventions that have to be respected by beneficiary countries. Moreover, the GSP+ (a special strand of GSP providing free market access for developing countries that would otherwise not qualify) establishes a strengthened monitoring mechanism. The beneficiary countries have to ratify these conventions and comply with their reporting and monitoring obligations. Most of the countries with high prevalence of child labour benefit from EU trade preferences. This gives the EU an important leverage. The EU has for example carefully monitored the issue of child labour in the GSP+ countries, highlighting child labour in its 2018 reports as an issue of concern in Bolivia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.

The European Union also supports third country ratification and implementation of the three relevant international conventions by political and diplomatic means. The EU cooperates with international organisations competent in the area. The EU further supports the elimination of child labour through development cooperation, for example in the employment and education sectors Financing programmes that address the particularly worrying situation of children in armed conflicts is another EU priority, seeking the release of child soldiers, and their comprehensive and successful reintegration. Moreover, the EU promotes responsible business conduct. According to Directive 2014/95/EU on non-financial reporting, from 2018 large EU companies are required to report on their policies on respect for human rights.

The European Parliament has addressed the issue of child labour in numerous resolutions urging the states concerned to take appropriate measures and the European Union to provide support. In a resolution of February 2018, the Parliament addressed the issue of widespread forced child labour in Haiti, urging the country’s authorities to implement measures to end this practice. In a 2017 resolution on EU priorities for the UN Human Rights Council sessions in 2017, the EP called on the EU to promote children’s rights by eliminating child labour. With respect to global supply chains, the Parliament supports the establishment of binding obligations on EU based companies that import goods that may have been produced with child labour. The EP has urged the European Commission to consider a legislative proposal on establishing a traceability mechanism to make sure goods imported into the EU are free of child labour and to ban those which are not.

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