Opinion: Effective prevention of child labor and child rights enforcement

Editor’s note: Zhang Wenjuan is an associate professor at Jindal Global Law School, an executive director at the Center for India-China Studies, and a senior research fellow at the Beijing Children’s Legal Aid and Research Center. The article reflects the authors’ opinion, and not necessarily the views of CGTN. 

Child labor is one of the manifested failures of child rights enforcement. The prevention of child labor needs multi-stakeholders’ efforts in various forms.

With the aim of fostering awareness against child labor around the world, the International Labor Organization (ILO) started the initiative to designate June 12 as the World Day Against Child Labor in 2002.

As a citizen, we need basic legal knowledge about child labor, such as the general minimum age a child can work, which is 16 in China and 14 in India, or the various forms of child labor.

The ILO specified the minimum age that a child can work during the convention (C138) of 1973: no work under the age of 12, no heavy work below the age of 14 and no hazardous work under the age of 18, which the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines as the age of majority.

In order to draw the attention of domestic policymakers toward the worst forms of child labor, the ILO released Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor in 1999.  The convention highlighted forced labor, bonded labor, child trafficking, involving children in armed conflict, involving children in gang crimes or other illegal activities, sexual exploitation of children, etc.

Child labor is usually prevalent in informal sectors such as cotton picking, carpet making and brick making, while it also exists in the formal manufacturing industry.

Children are preferred in informal industries because they can be easily disciplined for laborious work and because of their nimble fingers in making sophisticated stitching.

In an effort to fight against child labor, June 12 has been recognized as World Day Against Child Labor since 2002. /VCG Photo

More importantly, law enforcement in informal industries is much more difficult. In formal industries, the legal cost of hiring child labor is too high, which discourages the practice.

However, in some circumstances, due to cost reduction efforts, malpractice by management or the use of a fake ID by a child laborer, there are still cases of child labor in formal industries.

For the prevention of child labor, two critical issues should be taken seriously.

The first is to address the legal inconsistency in the prevention of child labor. The other is better coordination among children, parents and the state for effective prevention of child labor.

In many countries, the law is not consistently designed in terms of preventing child labor. For example, in China, 16 is the minimum age that a child can work.

However, its compulsory education stops at 15 years old, which produces institutionalized child labor. In other circumstances, the law sets the age for hazardous work at 18 and above, and the age for sexual consent at 14.

The legal response to child prostitution (14-17) is mainly from the perspective of protecting social order, and not as involving children in hazardous work. So child prostitutes are not treated as victims but as legal violators.

In India, the law allows child marriage even below the age of 14, which makes the age of child labor useless for these married children.

Preventing child labor requires well-coordinated roles to enforce child rights. However, in many countries, this is a big problem.

An Indian child shouts anti-government slogans as she takes part in a rally in New Delhi on August 29, 2013, held to call the country’s parliament to pass a legislation bill against child labor./ VCG Photo

Child labor is a result of a series of child rights enforcement failures. One of the critical rights involved is the right to education. It is surprising to find that in some countries it is only treated as a right to receive a free and compulsory education.

For example, in India, the law only prescribes the state should provide free and compulsory education to kids between the ages of 6 and 14. However, there is no requirement for kids and parents to actually receive the education. The state has no constitutional power to intervene in this situation.

This could explain why India’s illiteracy rate is nearly 29 percent and the country sadly has the world’s largest number of child laborers.

Let’s work together toward effective prevention of child labor. The legislative quality matters as well as the coordination among states, parents and kids.

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