In the opening decade of the 21st century, reports about children being exploited to make money for others are even more horrifying than the accounts that circulated during much of the last century. For example, children are – literally – enslaved to make carpets that decorate homes in Europe and North America. They are whipped because their employer thinks child servants should collect buckets of water more quickly. They are held captive so that older men can have sex with them. They are even recruited as cannon fodder for political purposes.
The sheer numbers are both startling and sobering – literally tens of millions of children around the world today work long hours before they have even reached the age of 10, let alone 18.
Child labour came under the international spotlight in the 1990s. For the first time since the industrialised world’s campaigns on the issue a century earlier, diplomats and economists started discussing why vast numbers of children were working rather than being educated, and what should be done about it. This time, the focus was on developing countries.
This new attention to an old issue was largely due to worries raised by people in industrialised countries such as the United Kingdom. Trade unionists, politicians and campaigners for social justice voiced concern that jobs were disappearing rapidly as businesses switched production from the industrialised world to developing countries where labour costs were much lower. Simultaneously, organisations in developing countries sounded the alarm when they saw children working longer and longer hours – not only producing goods for export, but also providing a cheap and malleable workforce for the local economy. Their worry was echoed by activists in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet
Union, who realised that the transition that started in 1989, was provoking an economic crisis which hit children particularly hard.
As more attention was given to the work children were performing, so the statistics about the numbers involved became more startling. The estimates of children between 5 and 14 in full-time employment had risen from 100 million at the beginning of the 1990s to 120 million by
1996.1 Six years later, when the information available had been scrutinised more carefully, the total was estimated at 211 million, along with a further 141 million young people aged 15 to 17 who were also in employment.2 At the beginning of the new millennium, 1 in 12 children in the world was reckoned to be involved in work which put their health at risk or caused them serious harm.
The late 1990s saw a series of initiatives – by governments and international organisations such as UNICEF, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Bank – to consider the policies needed to address child labour globally, and the priorities for action.
Two separate international conferences in 1997, in Amsterdam and Oslo, agreed to a proposal that stopping types of child labour that caused particular harm to children should be a priority – referred to initially as “intolerable” and later as the “worst forms” of child labour. Both endorsed UNICEF’s priority of ensuring that children, particularly more girls, attended school and went on attending classes for longer.
In 1999, a new international convention was adopted at the annual International Labour Conference, the “Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention” (also referred to as ILO Convention 182). This identified four categories of child labour, which governments, trade unions and employers’ organisations all agreed it was urgent to stop. The Convention was rapidly ratified and came into force the following year.
By June 2004, 150 countries had ratified it. In the course of the international deliberations, a whole new vocabulary has been developed for distinguishing between different categories of work involving under- 18s.
From 1999 onwards, UNICEF gave special priority to education, to ensure that children attended school rather than starting work too young. UNICEF has also been advocating for the quality of education to be good enough to keep children in school once they have enrolled.
In 2000, the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, focused on education policies. It was an opportunity to reflect on how badly girls were missing out at school in comparison to boys, and on what action was needed to make “education for all” a reality. In the same year the
UN adopted a new convention to stop children (and adults) being trafficked – taken away from their homes, often to other countries, to be involved in commercial sexual exploitation or other forms of economic exploitation in arduous and unacceptable conditions. UNICEF has paid special attention to the predicament of children who have been trafficked (most of whom are girls), particularly girls who work in private homes, not traditionally seen as places of work.
In May 2002, the United Nations reviewed the situation of children in general, summarising its agenda for the 21st century in “A World Fit for Children”. This emphasises the need for quality education for all children, and commits the world’s governments to a set of actions to protect children against abuse, exploitation and violence. Richer nations, such as the United Kingdom, committed themselves to providing assistance to other countries for social and economic development, poverty eradication programmes and universal education, as well as specific support to address child labour and its root causes.
Credits to Yong Shu Li (T5)