By Kabir Sharma:
India is one of only 4 countries not to have ratified neither of the ILO international conventions on child labour. The others are Marshall Islands, Palau and Tuvalu.
Both are part of the principle eight ILO conventions covering ‘fundamental’ principles and rights at work. The Minimum Age Convention (1973) details out the age above which children could start different types of labour. The Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999) calls for effective measures to secure elimination of the worst forms of child labour as a matter of urgency. It is the fastest ratified convention in the world.
The worst forms of child labour are defined to include all forms similar to slavery (such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt and compulsory labour, including forced recruitment in armed conflict, etc), the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or pornographic performances; use of children in illicit activities such as the production and trafficking of drugs; and work which by nature or the circumstance, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.
Most of these take place in India on large, systematic scales, and horror stories of slavery, exploitation and torture are plenty. The requirement of strict adherence of this convention has the potential to bring about major changes.
Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi earlier this month repeated that India ought to ratify the conventions. “India should not sit in the club of three or four countries that have not signed … We cannot keep dragging our feet on the issue of child labour as this is a sensitive issue in the global economy. We cannot ignore it and put it aside.”
“Child labour is decreasing but child trafficking and child slavery is not, and have remained stagnant at 5.5 million children still working as forced labourers,” the child rights campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate said, adding that there are still 168 million child labourers, more than half in dangerous forms of work, including being child soldiers and child prostitutes.
Globally, Asia accounts for the largest part of this with 122 million child labourers. But statistics are only one aspect of the story. It is important to look at what type of work is done, by whom, and for whom. The image of the child helping his parents with their work hides widespread exploitation all across Asia. Conditions of extreme poverty and marginalization lead to a lot of the exploitative child labour, including in many tribal societies in India and Asia, and migrant workers in general. And most of it takes place in the non-formal sector of the economy, where there are no trade unions.
Astonishingly, India is also one of the few countries not to have endorsed the ILO conventions on freedom of association, which deals with right of workers and employers to form and join unions and organizations.
Conclusions from some of ILO’s recent studies have falsified many myths people have about child labour. One such is the belief that availability of cheap labour, a lot of which comprises children, is necessary for the smooth running of developing national economies. The ILO argues that growing economies require quality education and a skilled workforce to flourish. “If you look at a number of countries in Asia, South America and elsewhere, there are examples of economies that have expanded rapidly while making education and social protection schemes a priority. For many, investing in education has helped lead to economic growth.”
A second belief is that child labour helps young people transition into paid work as adults. The ILO’s 2015 report found that young people with prior involvement in child labour were more likely to be in unpaid family work or in low-paying jobs as adults, while those who had left school at or below the general minimum working age of 15 were at greater risk of remaining outside the world of work altogether.
For developing countries, child labour is not going to disappear simply by the stroke of a pen. However, with a majority of countries’ adopting legislation guided by standards adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO), trends have shown improvement in the last few years. Pressure from both national and international legislation, communities and press all play crucial components.
Bolivia last year decided to reduce the minimum age for children to be allowed to work from 14 to 10, as part of the government’s plan to help people living in poverty.
Having ratified the conventions on child labour, international pressure on the country has been immense. New York-based Human Rights Watch said, “Bolivia’s move is out of step with the rest of the world. Child labour may be seen as a short-term solution to economic hardship, but is actually a cause of poverty.”
South America has seen a substantial reduction in the last fourteen years, but the move by Bolivia could halt this progress. “The new law runs against the regional current,” Carmen Moreno of the ILO said. “Mexico has set 15 as the minimum age and Chile age 16.”
Pressure to adhere with basic and agreed-on international norms is something that must continue to negotiate with regional political and cultural priorities, especially when effects on children are seen to be harmful.
Determined global action against child labour can only result from concerted efforts of governments agreeing on basic rights of children: What is needed is strong legislation sensitive to the fact that a decent childhood and quality education are fundamental rights of each and every child, wherever he may be born.