Written by Kristina Grosek.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) introduced the World Day Against Child Labour in 2002, as part of their efforts to eradicate this unacceptable phenomenon. The day is observed annually on 12 June, and this year the focus is on the 2021 International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. It is also an opportunity to consider measures taken at international and EU level.
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, because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is considered unacceptable for children and is prohibited. Not all work performed by children should be considered child labour. Forms of work that are beneficial to a child’s personal and social development, that do not interfere with schooling and childhood, but rather provide useful experience and skillsets should be encouraged.
Worst forms of child labour. The biggest concern within the scope of child labour, according to ILO Convention No 182, these forms of labour are prohibited for any person below the age of 18 and must be eliminated as a matter of urgency. They include all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery; involvement of children in commercial sexual exploitation; involvement of children in illicit activities; and work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children (Article 3).
Global trends. There has been a significant decline in the number of children between the ages of 5 and 17 involved in child labour, from an estimated 246 million children worldwide in 2000, but the pace slowed considerably from 2012 to 2016 and in the past four years, the number increased by 8.4 million. According to latest global estimates, a total of 160 million children were engaged in child labour in early 2020, and nearly half of them (79 million) carry out hazardous work, endangering their health, safety and moral development. The Covid‑19 crisis is likely to cause a substantial rise in child labour, with 8.9 million more children predicted in child labour by the end of 2022. Over half of all child labour is in Sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest rate of child labour, with 24 % of children employed as child labourers, a total of nearly 87 million. Next is Asia and the Pacific, where although a steady decline has been seen since 2008, 48.7 million children remain in child labour. Globally, the largest number of child labourers (71 %) are in the agricultural sector. Although the phenomenon is more commonly associated with non-EU countries, and reliable data are lacking, there is evidence that child labour also persists in the EU and Europe.
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, 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 countries all over the world, and notable progress, the goal has still to be achieved. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and Goal 8 in particular, set the target of eliminating all forms of child labour by 2025. To meet this, according to the latest projections, progress needs to be 18 times faster than in the past 20 years. Immediate action is required to reduce the negative impact of the Covid‑19 crisis on child labour. The risk of child labour in growing crises, conflicts, and disasters should be addressed. Social protection needs to be universal, and children’s education safeguarded and advanced. It is important to address the risk of child labour in both domestic and global supply chains.
Act now: End child labour! This year’s Day Against Child Labour is the first since universal ratification of ILO Convention No 182 on the worst forms of child labour. It is also the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, declared by the UN General Assembly in July 2019. The ILO is responsible for its implementation, and all member states and stakeholders are invited to raise awareness of the importance of eradicating child labour, working towards the goal of eliminating it by 2025. A week of action runs from 10 to 17 June 2021, starting with the publication of the new global estimates on child labour (2016‑2020).
International legal framework for combating child labour
The ILO has been committed to the abolition of child labour as one of its main goals since 1919, playing a crucial role in raising awareness of the importance of eliminating child labour, as well as in establishing recognised standards. Three 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 173 countries, including all European Union (EU) Member States. This crucial document lays down standards for the minimum age for employment, calling on the parties to set the minimum age at 15 years (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 187 countries, including all EU Member States, and is known for being 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 protection from economic exploitation, as well as from performing any work 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 EU (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). Transposition of the directive into national law was uneventful, as most Member States already had legislation providing for the prohibition of child labour. 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. In its recent communication on the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child, the Commission confirms its strong commitment to elimination of child labour and the ‘zero tolerance’ approach already announced in the Commission’s political guidelines. The Council of the EU has also 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 condemned child labour and its various forms within and outside the EU in a number of resolutions, and called 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. 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. More recently, in its resolution on children’s rights in view of the EU strategy on the rights of the child (March 2021), Parliament calls on the Commission and Member States to end, in law and in practice, all child labour and all other forms of work likely to harm children’s health and safety. It also calls on the Commission to embed children’s rights in the upcoming EU sustainable governance framework, and recommends adopting cross-sectoral mandatory due diligence and ensuring that all EU policies are child-friendly.
Read this at a glance note on ‘World Day Against Child Labour‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.