Together Against Child Labour: Frameworks of the Law
Globally, over 152 million children are still involved in Child Labour.
This morning, when you went on your tea break, did you take a quick look around you? Did you see children working on making your tea, cleaning the stall, sweeping the area around you? It’s such a common sight in India, that we’ve managed to stop noticing it. Here’s the thing - we don’t mean to make you feel bad, but you’re a part of a system that engages children in labour at the cost of their education. The price of your tea is a lot more than the 10 rupees you paid.
As today is the World Day Against Child Labour, let's take a quick look at the relevant Indian and international laws that apply to the protection of children.
Launched in 2002 by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the World Day against Child Labour is intended to draw attention to the immense scale of child rights violations through child labour across the world. On June 12, governments, organisations, and individuals come together as stake holders of society to highlight the plight of child labourers, and commit resources to eliminating child labour. In 2019, the official ILO theme of the Day is ‘Children shouldn’t work in fields, but on dreams’.
What is Child Labour?
Any work that is harmful to children. It’s as easy as that, but this open ended definition does leave room for a lot of debate. Largely, child labour must be determined on a case by case basis. In general though, it can be stated that any work that harms a child, which is in violation of international laws and national legislation, is illegal child labour. It is anything that makes them choose between working and education.
The term child labour is broad, and includes slavery, sex work, and all other forms of child exploitation.
Here’s the catch - the national laws and international laws are supposed to work in tandem. International Human Rights treaties usually work like this - An international treaty, also called a convention, is drafted, signed, and ratified by countries who are party to that particular convention. Once it has been signed, the ratification process takes place within the country’s national legal system. The ratified treaty is then drafted as national law, which is how the provisions of the treaty is upheld in the courts of member countries.
Here’s the problem we face in India - some treaties are simply not signed by our country. Others, while signed, are only agreed to with reservations - meaning while signing, the country categorically states that certain obligations of the treaty are simply impossible to fulfil in the context of the country. Therefore, the country accepts the treaty, agrees to it, while rejecting certain clauses.
Of the three international treaties on Child Labour, India is not party to two treaties, and it has signed the third with reservations.
The International Conventions:
According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), “children have the right to be protected from work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.” The CRC is the landmark international convention on child rights, and provides children with legal rights, standards, and guidelines that are then converted into national Acts and laws. The anti child labour provisions are laid down in Article 32 of the convention. Broadly, it holds member countries to the promise that children and young people shouldn't be able to work until they reach a certain age.
In addition to the international law laid down by the CRC, the ILO also has two conventions that deal with the protection of child labourers.
The first such law is the ILO Convention 138 on Minimum Age. It was one of the first Conventions adopted by the ILO in the year of the Organisation’s constitution, exactly 100 years ago, in 1919. It mandates the legal minimum age at which children may begin working. As per the convention, the minimum age bar is 15 years, with exceptions made for developing countries, allowing children to start working at 14 years old. India is one of the countries that avails of this exception, making the minimum age for work here 14 years. The overall aim of this Convention is to set the general framework that allows children to finish compulsory schooling, and give children the time to develop wholly, before the enter the workforce.
The second instrument is the ILO Convention on Worst Forms of Child Labour, which adds a category of Hazardous Child Labour as one of the worst forms. This is any work done by a child under 18 years of age, that is likely to harm his or her mental or physical conditions. Adopted in 1999, this year marks this convention’s 20th anniversary.
This year, the ILO chose to focus on children working in fields because according to their statistics, seven out of every 10 children engaged in labour are working in the agricultural sector.
The Indian Perspective:
India has not ratified either of the two ILO conventions and also made a reservation to article 32 of the CRC at the time of ratification stating that it would apply the article in a progressive manner, according to its national legislation and international commitments, especially in relation to the minimum age.
That being said, there are some national legislations in place in India to protect children from entering the workplace too early.
The Child Labour Act of 1986, was ratified “to prohibit the engagement of children in certain employments and to regulate the conditions of work of children in certain other employments”.
The National Policy on Child Labour of 1987, places a focus more on rehabilitation of children working in hazardous occupations and processes, rather than on prevention.
The Juvenile Justice Act of 2000 includes the working child in the category of children in need of care and protection, without any limitation of age or type of occupation.
And finally, The Right to Education Act 2009 has made it mandatory for the state to ensure that all children aged six to 14 years, are in school and receive free education. Along with Article 21A of the Constitution of India recognizing education as a fundamental right, this constitutes a timely opportunity to use education to combat child labour in India.
In conclusion, India has taken some strides ahead in preventing child labour. However, so much more can - and must - be done. At a moment where we could set an example before the international community, of a developing nation taking on international child protection obligations, we failed. Again, we can’t help but drive the point home - we are all complicit in a system that exploits children who are susceptible to child labour. And now, it’s time to start noticing it.