Child labour has become one of the most widely debated and controversial issues in the international labour market today. It affects almost every aspect of life in developed, developing and underdeveloped nations. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), at least 120 million children, between the ages of 5 and 14 years, worldwide did full-time, paid work in 1995.
Special interest groups and the media have been making the general public in developed nations aware of the plight of children in underdeveloped and developing nations. Economist Kaushik Basu believes that first world concerns are driven not only by sympathies for children in the third world, but also by vested interests and protectionism. Third world nations do not always agree that working children are the victims of their labour policies and laws. Rather, they attribute the existence of child labour to poverty and insist they would not be able to eradicate the problem of child labour no matter how strictly they enforced laws and regulations.
In recent years, many economists have addressed this topic and have tried to rationalise the positions of differing theoretical camps. Here, I would like to review international issues related to child labours and recommend amicable policies for a long-term solution to the child labour problem. While theoretical research has provided economic reasons for child labour, no matter what theoretical justification we use, the issue cannot be resolved unless we do ground work based on empirical evidence.
Estimates of child labour depend upon the way we categorise them. In some developing countries like Nepal, customarily anyone over 12 years of age is not considered a child. The ILO Convention Number 138 considers anyone up to 15 years a child, but this convention has exceptions. ‘Light work’ is permitted after the age of 13 years, and ‘hazardous work,’ after 18 years. Basu points out that even after the ratification of Convention Number 138 by most of the nations, data on child labour tend to vary from one survey to another due to under-reporting and non-reporting for fear of legal consequences. And in spite of ILO regulations that are supposed to be internationally recognised, nations have their own sets of laws that overwrite the ILO convention. Industrialised nations like Japan, USA, and Western European countries ban child labour outright and developing and underdeveloped countries impose ban on the employment of children below 10.
In these countries, laws become more lenient and flexible, depending upon the nature of the work, when they relate to the employment of children above 12 years of age. Studies show that Asia, with the world’s largest population, has the greatest number of working children.
Organisations like the ILO and WTO are international labour watchdogs. Nations around the world have signed the ILO’s charter and shown their willingness to be governed accordingly. Nations can appeal to the WTO for trade restrictions against other countries if they have not followed the ILO charter and have produced goods and services without following international labour standards.
In 1999, the 184 member nations of the ILO passed the ‘Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention’. By April 2002, 117 countries ratified the convention – the most rapid rate of ratification in the ILO’s history. This demonstrates how nations are coming together in support of an international labour standard convention. But policing compliance is a tough and costly job. The ILO does not have adequate resources to police member nations—and many nations do not have the resources to monitor compliance within their borders.
The question is: Is the establishment of an international labour standard a genuine issue? Jagdish Bhagwati believes that lobbies and protectionists have driven proponents of international labour standards, with their own interests.
The issue of an international labour standard is very closely related to the child labour, in particular. In general, there is consensus among advocates of an international labour standard that children should not work; however, there are differing views on how to achieve this objective. Frank Wilkinson believes that countries with lower labour standards have trading advantages, as they can produce goods and services more cheaply than developed nations and should hence be subject to import restrictions so they learn their lesson and improve their substandard labour situation. Some opponents of this view argue that outright restrictions would further deteriorate the situation of children in third world nations.
The actual effect of an international labour standard on child labour is unclear. Would strict imposition help to reduce child labour? Or would it further deteriorate the situation of children in those nations where child labour is still widespread? There are not enough theoretical models that have been dedicated to this issue; however, empirical surveys do not seem to support strict worldwide impositions of a labour standard.
In the worldwide battle against child labour, efforts and interventions have been made at different levels. Basu separates these interventions into three groups: intra-national, supra-national and extra-national. Intra-national laws are applicable inside a nation. For example, Nepal’s Labour Act of 1992 and The Children’s Act of 1992, place restrictions on child labour.
Supra-national interventions or laws are governed by international organisations such as the ILO, WTO, and UNICEF. Supra-national institutions can impose international labour standards to curb child labour. The power which supra-national institutions execute is somewhat controversial, and many economists argue that such impositions bring economic efficiency with unexpected side effects.
Since the world has been slow to adopt or act upon international labour standards for fear of controversies or for various geo-political reasons, many developed nations have started creating their own set of labour laws applicable to all nations who want to do trade/business with them. Such interventions and laws are referred to as extra-national. An example of an extra-national intervention is the Child Labour Deterrence Act, or the so-called Harkin’s Bill, enacted by the US congress and adopted by the US government. This law disallows the import of goods that have been produced with the help of child labour.
What work and what do not has always been an issue when we talk about curbing child labour. Two kinds of interventions are usually advocated. Basu calls them legal interventions and collaborative interventions. Under collaborative interventions, policymakers advocate plans and policies that uplift the economic situation of nations as a whole so that adults are sufficiently employed and paid and are motivated to pull their children out of the labour force and send them to school. Collaborative interventions make sense because current trends show that in nations where there is less unemployment as a whole and adults have better paying jobs, that the participation of children in labour force is minimal. These interventions are not imposed forcefully but are implemented by working closely with parents while educating them about the long-term negative impacts of child labour.
Legal interventions are a top-down approach in which parents, corporations and even nations are told what to do, with the threat of actions being taken for non-compliance. Actions may range from boycotts of products manufactured using child labour to impositions of total trade embargoes. Legal interventions, therefore, may cause the unwanted effect of further deteriorating economic conditions in nations where child labour is a mass phenomenon.
It is important for policymakers to carefully analyse which kinds of interventions will be the most effective. We cannot continue to do nothing, as there may be serious exploitation of children going on in some parts of the world. Strict actions may be required to bring an end to such intentional exploitation. It is clear, therefore, that before intervening, we must categorise the extent of the problem.
There are garment and rug factories in counties like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nepal where children are sought for employment and adults are refused jobs. Strict legal interventions may be needed to prohibit such actions. On the other hand, on rural farms in the poor nations of the world children have been helping parents with farm work and home babysitting for generations. It would not be fair to deny farm products from such nation access to markets in developed nations. This sort of child labour is not exploitation—and its participation rate has been constantly decreasing. Intervention policies, therefore, need to be well thought out and possible unintended effects need to be thoroughly analysed before initiating actual enforcement. Strict interventions overdue in some places and overused in others.
Some economists advocate a total ban on child labour stating that only a large-scale withdrawal of children from labour force can cause adult wages go up and make working class families better off. But is a total ban on child labour a good thing? A total ban may be feasible in many circumstances, but it may not be desirable. A total ban may bring economic hardship in countries where child labour is a mass phenomenon. In such countries a ban should be contextual and limited to hazardous working conditions and exploitation. A forced ban would not be a good choice: it would inevitably have unintended negative effects.
On the other hand, making schooling compulsory may be a more workable choice and would accomplish two significant purposes: 1) It would prevent children from working full-time; and 2) It would prepare children for better future.
One of the most common effects of intervention worldwide is that children are being siphoned to work for non-export sector. As industrialised nations have banned the import of goods and services manufactured using child labour, export sector industries in developing nations have avoided hiring children. Those children without other alternatives have started working in the non-export sector where they get paid much less and working conditions are even worse. Therefore, legal interventions from the developed world are causing unintended negative effects on children of poor and developing countries.
Surveys and analysis show that there are not any defined prescriptions that would outright solve international child labour problems. Interventions driven by vested interests will continue and countries will sometimes find ways to bypass such interventions and sometimes be hurt by them, as they can’t control child labour even if they want to. We should not forget that even poor parents would not send their children to work if they had better alternatives.
(The article was published in The Kathmandu Post on April 08, 2003.)