Behind the global scourge of child labour

BLEAK FUTURE: Two out of three child labourers are engaged in agriculture and allied activities; the rest are in informal and unorganised sectors. Here, two children work in a brick kiln in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh. File Photo: G.N. Rao   | Photo Credit: G_N_Rao

While governments and civil society commemorate the World Day Against Child Labour on June 12, over 20 crore children are still engaged as child labourers. More than half of them face the worst forms of child labour. Though India has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of child labourers, this is a global scourge. The Asia-Pacific accounts for 41 per cent of all child labour, followed by Africa with 33 per cent and Latin America with 8 per cent. Child labour exists in the United States and parts of Europe, particularly Central and Eastern Europe.

Two out of three child labourers are engaged in agriculture and allied activities; the rest are in informal and unorganised sectors. Some are used for prostitution and pornography. Many are forced into beggary and into committing petty crimes for their bosses. Still others are drafted as child soldiers.

Child labour and slavery are among the worst forms of human rights violations. The prevalence of child labour points to utter disrespect towards international declarations, treaties and conventions, and national constitutions and legislation. It is the biggest obstacle in the way of education and development. Its continued prevalence is evidence of a lack of political will and social concern. Child labour denies freedom, justice, dignity, equal opportunities and a fulfilled childhood. It also endangers children's present and future. It is a slap in the face of civilisations, cultures and religions.

Push factors

The push factors include abject poverty, illiteracy, lack of awareness, parents' gullibility and a child un-friendly mindset in communities Then there are socio-cultural discrimination, gender bias, denial of legal safeguards and thin outreach of development benefits. The absence or inadequacy of educational facilities, the state's incapability to effectively handle natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, droughts and famines, are other causes. Development disasters such as deforestation, mining and displacement are largely responsible for children falling prey to child labour.

Greedy employers looking for a vulnerable, docile and cheap workforce, bribery and other forms of corruption and apathy among law enforcement agencies, combined with connivance among traffickers, employers, politicians and bureaucracy are some of the pull factors. In addition to the fact that children provide cheap or free labour, they are preferred to adults because they do not challenge employers or form unions, are unable to demand decent work and never resort to strikes despite abuse and exploitation.

It is the statutory obligation of governments to eliminate child labour; it is also their moral and social responsibility. Child labour is one of the four core labour standards of the International Labour Organisation and is incorporated in the definition of the ILO's fundamental principles. That means all state-parties are accountable to act in accordance with international treaties and conventions. There are two specific pieces of international legislation that deal with the problem. One is ILO Convention 138 on minimum age adopted in 1973 and ratified by 159 countries. Under this, no child can be employed before 14 years of age in any occupation in developing countries and 15 years in developed countries. The other is Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour, unanimously adopted in 1999 and ratified by 173 countries. India has not signed either; here it joins the ranks of Sierra Leone, Somalia and Myanmar.

The worst forms involve slavery, forced labour, bonded labour, trafficking, armed conscription, illegal activities and criminal activities such as drug peddling. These can jeopardise the physical, mental or moral well-being of a child, because of its nature and the conditions in which they are carried out. It is “hazardous work.” The state-parties in the ILO were encouraged to ratify the Convention and synchronise their domestic legislation with international obligations. They are supposed to develop a time-bound national action plan and involve stakeholders in its planning, implementation and monitoring.

Global commitments

Besides the legal obligations, the countries are accountable to two other international commitments — the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Dakar Framework for Action on Education For All. India is a signatory to both. Education figures prominently among the MDGs, along with poverty reduction, employment generation and adult literacy. The international community has pledged to achieve both the development and education goals by 2015. This means all children are supposed to be enrolled in schools this year.

What could be a matter of bigger urgency than seven crore children who have never been to school, or another 15 crore who have dropped out? Recent UN reports are alarming. More than 80 countries have failed their children in their commitment towards education. Civil society has been pointing out that without the abolition of child labour, these goals can never be met, as it is a cross-cutting issue.

Studies prove that child labour is a significant cause that creates and perpetuates poverty and unemployment. It is also a serious obstacle in achieving education goals. Each child is employed at the cost of an adult's job. There are 21.5 crore child labourers worldwide, while there are 26 crore unemployed adults. Studies have revealed that most of the jobless adults are the parents of full-time child labourers. This is a vicious circle. No country could possibly solve the problem of poverty, unemployment and illiteracy without eliminating child labour.

Economic aspects

A recent UN study on the economic aspects of child labour reveals that an investment of $1 on the elimination of child labour will return $7 over a period of 20 years. While lack of education is a cause of child labour, it is also its consequence and effect. Education is the single most important tool of growth that can be given to children to take them out of the rut of poverty and to better their lives. Bringing children under the ambit of education requires getting them liberated from the trap of child labour.

For the first time in the global development discourse, child labour has been formally incorporated and acknowledged as a key obstacle to attaining the MDGs. During the UN MDG summit in September 2010, member-states agreed that steps to eliminate the worst forms of child labour are necessary to ensure universal elementary education, strengthen child protection systems and combat child trafficking.

Child labour is a serious threat to human rights and liberty, and an impediment to the personal development of an individual and the economic growth of a nation. It has to be addressed as a political priority and with a sense of urgency. On the one hand, the laws have to be in place and respected; on the other, agencies responsible for their implementation are to be held accountable.

Adequate budgetary provisions for law enforcement and for providing free and quality education for all must be ensured. Since child labour, trafficking and slavery are not isolated issues, they have to be addressed in a holistic approach of development in human rights. This requires an effective inter-ministerial and inter-agency cooperation and coordination with a convergent and coherent policy framework.


Child labour is a major threat to the success of Corporate Social Responsibility and ethical trading practices. Globalisation, privatisation and liberalisation have fuelled a massive demand for cheap and docile labour in the supply chain. The fast-growing domestic and international corporations must be held accountable. Though all major brands in consumer goods and industries claim their commitment through contracts, codes of conduct and internal monitoring systems, many of them have been exposed time and again as employing child labour. Here the role of consumer concern and action is important. They must boycott all services provided by and goods made by children. Their personal commitment and social alertness are essential to solve the complex problem.

Success stories

There are several success stories to learn from. Mid-day meal programmes and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in India have helped increase the enrolment and retention of children in schools. In Bangladesh, a food-for-education programme and special focus on girls' education have helped remarkably. The focus on enrolling and providing life skills education to hard-to-reach urban children, especially girls, was very successful. In the Bolsa Escola, and later on the Bolsa Familia programme in Brazil, stipends were given to children from poor families, provided they did not miss more than two classes a month. This conditional cash transfer programme was a success. There was a surge in school enrolments. More important, there were no drop-outs, as per a World Bank study. The abolition of school fees and improvement in the quality of education have brought millions of child labourers in Tanzania, Mozambique and Kenya into classrooms. Initiatives such as multi-stakeholder partnerships in the chocolate industry, voluntary social labelling for South Asian carpets and mass movement building by the Global March Against Child Labour are success stories. Though it presents a challenge, the end of child labour is definitely within reach. What are necessary are persistent efforts and innovative measures.

(The author is the founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan and chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labour.)

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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 11:26:31 AM |

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