Legislation: Protection or Abolition?

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that exploitative child labor should be eliminated, but the Convention’s recommendations ‘‘may not be realistic for all countries, especially those whose economies and educational facilities are insufficiently developed’’ (Bequele and Myers, 1995: 93). The International Labour Organization (ILO) has been striving to ban child labor since 1919, and the ILO’s Minimum Age Convention of 1973 (No. 138) sets out the current principles guiding international child labor. However, recent discussions of policymaking and legislation have shifted from a desire to ban all child labor to providing legislation to protect children from overexploitation. The illegal status of children’s work forces it underground, to be denied by governments, employers, parents, and the children themselves, and where it is hidden it is not included in protective legislation. Otherwise, it may be disguised as an ‘apprenticeship’ or ‘training’, when in reality such a label is a convenient excuse to pay even lower wages.

However, illegal child labor tends to be confined to industrial or commercial jobs, especially factories, mines, and other hazardous employment. Labor legislation prohibits children under a certain age, usually 12–14 years old, from doing certain jobs which tend to exclude the agricultural and domestic sectors. Even where comprehensive legislation exists, it is rarely enforced in the Majority world. This is because there is a shortage of inspectors, who are badly paid and are often easily bribed. Bequele and Myers outlined the preventative approaches which aim to tackle the underlying social and economic conditions, and rehabilitative approaches which deal with the symptoms of child labor. They highlighted the need to target the most at risk groups which include those working in hazardous situations and very young children. However, they also recognized that ‘‘protecting children against a particular hazard, and making their work more tolerable, may encourage them to stay in it.’’ (Bequele and Myers, 1995:156.) There is no disputing that exploitative child labor conditions should be regulated, but the child’s view, the context, and the consequences should also be taken into account.