The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines child labor as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development”1 Being a United Nations (UN) agency, ILO is well conversant with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is part of the human rights conventions of the UN. The Convention on the Rights of the Child went on record for being ratified by the greatest number of UN party states in 1999, when 191 states ratified it.2
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Unfortunately, the massive ratification by UN member states is not a reflection of how well individual countries have supported the very children’s rights that the Convention indicates. In fact, it has been noted that the children who enjoy the rights advocated for by the Convention are only a minority when compared to millions of others whose childhood is taken away from them through child labor.3
The Convention aside, it is important to note that children are just children; in their purest state, they are innocent, helpless, and clueless.4 The foregoing statement forms the basis of the argument that children need to be protected, and where parents, communities, and governments are not willing to fulfill their respective mandate to protect such children, the UN needs to come in and assume the role of advocate and protector of the young lives.
Child labor issues are important because, without advocacy, children will continue being the subject of child labor and exploitation by the adult population. The worst form of child labor is where the subject children are treated as human objects for sexual and physical exploitation. Some children may not be subjected to extreme cruelty through child labor, but the fact that they are denied a chance to get an education means that they are caught in a web of unending poverty. Notably, regulating child labor is a difficult undertaking for any community or government, mainly because much of child labor occurs in the informal sector.
This report proposes that the absence of political goodwill from governments, and concerted efforts by community members have so far led to the perpetuation of child labor. This report, therefore, suggests that the UN bodies such as UNICEF and ILO can work with governments, communities, and parents to create the goodwill needed to end child labor. Such UN bodies can create such goodwill through creating the necessary awareness regarding the negative effects of child labor, and by working with the most critical stakeholders in this issue, to ensure that child labor is ended.
The necessity of working with stakeholders, most especially the parents to child laborers, is underscored by statistics which indicate that 62 percent of all child laborers were inducted into work by their own parents.5 Working with stakeholders is also advocated for by some scholars, who argue that proper “programs should be directed towards…the poor, the minorities, and those people at the margins of society” since it has been found that people in these categories are more likely to allow or even encourage their children to work.6
The Effects of Child Labor
Child Labor and Education
Children who are subjected to child labor miss out on education opportunities. Article 32 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights recommends that children should be protected from hazardous work, from jobs that are likely to interfere with their education, and from exploitation that is of an economic nature.7 In this report’s opinion, child laborers may try to attain a balance between work and school, but in the end, their school attendance and performance always suffer.
It is possible that such children eventually drop out of school, either because they are too tired to balance learning and work, or because their parents convinced that they are better workers than learners, often pull them out of school. Incidentally, it has been argued that poverty is one of the leading causes of child labor;8 unfortunately, whenever a child drops out of school or fails to pay enough attention to school work in order to pursue short-term economic gains, they end up compromising their chances of ever breaking free from poverty.
Unfortunately, most such children are not aware of the harm they occasion to themselves when they pull out of school. It would, therefore, take the intervention of adults for them to be informed of how important education is. The adults in the children’s lives are the same adults who may have encouraged them to take up paid work. The UN can ideally mobilize such adults, in order to inform them of the need to encourage children to go to school, and why education is important.
Changing parents’ perceptions regarding schooling and its importance in a child’s life is an important step towards fighting child labor because it has been argued that parents usually have a firm control of their children, and as such, parents who do not perceive school as important encourage their children to take up child labor and in some cases, drop out of school.9
Child Labor and Poor Remuneration
Child laborers are generally inadequately compensated.10 Some of the reasons they are not paid as well as their adult counterparts are that they do not have the skills or expertise to work specific jobs. Additionally, children often lack the negotiation skills to petition their employers to increase their pay. Moreover, children do not have any representation.
For example, they do not have labor union membership, and as such, the unions cannot petition their employers for better pay. In an exemplary case, children working in tobacco farms in Malawi are so poorly compensated that Plan International found out that their earnings did not make any “significant contribution to the needs of their households”11 In other cases, child laborers were not paid anything; instead, they helped their parents in contractual work, and a result, their parents were paid on their behalf.12
The foregoing situation in Malawi suggests that child labor does not benefit children; if anything, it makes their long-term welfare worse. It is also important to note that children do not make significant contributions to the well-being of their families. This, therefore, means that they need not be exposed to child labor in the first place. Notably, only eight percent of child laborers chose to work; the rest (i.e. 92 percent) are encouraged or even forced to work by their parents, relatives, or guardians.13 This report, therefore, submits that child labor is, in most cases, forced labor.
Child Labor And Long Working Hours
Some employers are cruel. Such cruelty has catastrophic effects when used on docile child laborers who are made to work long hours, sometimes with no breaks. Even more disturbing is that children do not know how to champion their own rights in the workplace. An example of the foregoing is indicated by an interview that a researcher had with a child laborer in India, where the child indicated that they could work as long as they were able to stand on their feet.14 To make matters worse, the child was paid a pittance, and sometimes, he would be beaten up by the employer for not being fast enough at work. In this report’s opinion, children especially in Africa and Asia are treated like slaves because in addition to the long hours, some are not even allowed to rest or leave their current employer.
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Child Laborers and Stolen Childhoods
Child labor is arguably the worst kind of denial to children. It prevents them from becoming children and enjoying the joys childhood. In most cases, child labor catapults children into the adult world without preparing them mentally or physically.15 Elizabeth B. Browning captures the cruelty of stolen childhood in the poem below:
“Do you hear the children weeping, O my brothers? Ere the sorrow come with years…they are weeping in the playtime of the others, in the country of the free…‘How Long’, they say, ‘how long, O Cruel Nation, Will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart?’”16
The above poem explains that where children are free, they play. Where their state of freedom is compromised, they get engaged in laborious work that their immature bodies can barely handle. The poem further suggests that in countries where child labor is the norm, children weep when they should be playing. Arguably, the work burden placed on them is too heavy for them to bear comfortably.
During childhood, children get an education, which acts a foundation for their future. When they do not acquire education because they have to work, child laborers are trapped in a cycle of poverty. Without an education, child laborers do not develop skills and competencies, and subsequently, they face diminished chances in life and more risks of poverty in the future.
A Risk to Children’s Mental and Physical Development
In the work place, children are abused, harmed and discriminated against.17 Ideally, a child needs protection since they lack the capacity to protect themselves. They also develop gradually and before full development is attained, they usually depend on adults. Being underage, children do not have the full legal standing, something that makes them susceptible to age-based discrimination. In some cases, children are forced to work in hazardous environments, with no protective clothing and this affects their physical development.18
Even more disturbing is that some child laborers are denied proper nutrition and this means that they are at risk of suffering stunted growth as well as mental torture from the cruelty meted on them. Research has found that children are more sensitive to ionizing radiation, silica and lead toxicity, heat and noise, all which are to be found in some workplaces where children work.19 The strain that work has on the physiology is also worth mentioning especially since straining their growing joints and bones have been found to result in stunted growth and spinal injuries.20
So far, there is no internationally agreed definition of child labor.21 While countries have varying minimum age restrictions for which children should not be working, child labor remains an ambiguous concept.22 The ambiguous nature of child labor hence makes it hard to deal with and abolish. On its part, the UN being an intergovernmental organization can formulate policies that specifically define child labor and indicate the age limit for which no child should work. This could be done together with UN member countries.
Notably, policy formulation and enactment on itself is not enough; from the speed with which UN member countries ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the dismal treatment of child labor-related issues by the same UN-member countries, it is clear that policy documents will not achieve much. This paper therefore suggests a different approach from what has been done in the past.
First, it is important to acknowledge that tentative statistics indicate that 62 percent of all child laborers were inducted to the labor market by their parents.23 This means more awareness creation and desensitization needs to target parents, who sacrifice their children’s future for short-term gains. In most cultures, the child is not only the responsibility of his or her parent, but of the larger community as well. As such, communities also need to be targeted with information relating to the dangers of child labor and the importance of educating children in those communities. The UN can intervene by rolling out awareness campaigns (together with local governments and institutions) in specific countries where child labor is most prevalent.
The foregoing intervention measures should ensure that child labor is not a legal issue only, but also a social issue that needs social solutions. In some countries, child labor is embedded in local cultures, and unless such cultures are discredited, children will continue suffering at the hands of the same people who are supposed to nurture and care for them. The UN would thus need a strategy to work with each culture in order to ensure that the children are given the opportunities and care they need to develop physically, mentally and emotionally without the burdens imposed on them by child labor. The UN is the most suitable organization to fight child labor because of its close diplomatic connections with most of the developing countries where child labor is prevalent. Notably, most national governments may lack the political goodwill to run such campaigns while others are short on funding, hence the need for UN’s intervention.
Arat, Zehra F. “Analyzing child labor as a Human Rights Issue: Its Causes, Aggravating Policies, and Alternative Proposals.” Human Rights Quarterly 24, no. 1 (2002): 177-204
Baradaran, Shima and Stephanie Barclay. “Fair Trade and Child Labor.” Columbia Human Rights Review 43, no.1 (2011): 1-63.
Basu, Kaushik. “Child Labor: Cause, Consequence, and Cure, With Remarks on International Labor Standards.”Journal of Economic Literature 37 no.9 (1999): 1083-1119.
Brown, Gordon. “Child labor & Education disadvantage- Breaking the Link, Building Opportunity.” The Office of the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, London, (2012): 1-78.
D’Avolio, Michele. “Child Labor and Cultural Relativism: From 19th Century America to 21st Century Nepal.” Pace International Law Review 16, no. 1 (2004): 109-145.
Hindman, Hugh D. The World of Child Labor: a Historical and Regional Survey. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2011.
ILO. “A Future without Child Labor.” International Labor Conference, 90th Session (2002): 1-138.
International Labor Organization (ILO). “What is Child Labor?” ilo.org. 2014. Web.
Oloya, Opiyo. Child Soldier: Stories from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.
Plan International. “Hard Work, Long Hours and Little Pay: Research with Children Working on Tobacco Farms in Malawi.” Plan International Malawi (2009): 1-81.
Siddiqi, Faraaz and Harry Anthony Patrinos. “Child Labor: Issue, Causes and Interventions.” Human Capital Development and Operations Policy Working Papers 56, no. 1 (2001): 1-14.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Convention on the Rights of the Child.” Annex 2, (1989): 110-139.
- International Labor Organization (ILO). “What is Child Labor?” Ilo.org. 2014. Web.
- Zehra F Arat. “Analyzing Child Labor as a Human Rights Issue: Its Causes, Aggravating Policies, and Alternative Proposals.” Human Rights Quarterly 24, no.1 (2002): 177.
- Arat, “Analyzing Child Labor” 177.
- Opiyo, Oloya. Child Soldier: Stories from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2013), 178.
- Faraaz, Siddiqi, and Harry Anthony Patrinos. “Child Labor: Issues, Causes, and Interventions.” Human Capital Development and Operations Policy Working Papers 56, no. 1(2001): 5.
- Michele D’Avolio. “Child Labor and Cultural Relativism: From 19th Century America to 21st Century Nepal.” Pace International Law Review 16, no.1 (2004):141.
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Convention on the Rights of the Child.” Annex 2, (1989): 127.
- Shima, Baradan, and Stephanie Barclay. “Fair Trade and Child Labor.” Columbia Human Rights Review 43, no.1, (2011): 14.
- Siddiqi and Patrinos, “Child Labor,” 7.
- Siddiqi and Patrinos, “Child Labor,” 7.
- Plan International. “Hard Work, Long Hours, and Little Pay: Research with Children Working on Tobacco Farms in Malawi.” Plan International Malawi (2009): 58.
- Plan International, “Hard Work, Long Hours and Little Pay,” 58.
- Siddiqi and Patrinos, “Child Labor,” 5.
- Kaushik, Basu. “Child Labor: Cause, Consequence, and Cure, with Remarks on International Labor Standards.”Journal of Economic Literature 37 (1999): 1087.
- Gordon, Brown. “Child labor & Education disadvantage- Breaking the Link, Building Opportunity.” The Office of the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, London, (2012): 4.
- Brown, “Child Labor & Education Disadvantage,” 4.
- Hugh Hindman. The World of Child Labor: An Historical and Regional Survey. (New York: M.E Sharpe, 2011), 10.
- Hindman, “The World of Child Labor,” 15.
- ILO. “A Future without Child Labor.” International Labor Conference, 90th Session (2002): 12.
- ILO, “A Future without Child Labor,” 12.
- Baradan and Barclay, “Fair Trade and Child Labor,” 41.
- Baradan and Barclay, “Fair Trade and Child Labor,” 41.
- Faraaz and Patrinos, “Child Labor,” 5.