The UN needs to change its approach to banning child labour
By Zenab Ahmad
In December 2016, the United Nations Committee for the Rights of the Child passed a ban on child labour that specified certain ages for the restriction. Laws like these aren’t new, and the UNCRC is continuing a longer trend of UN bodies confronting the practice. Nevertheless, the use of child labour persists, and the UN has been criticised for not taking vital nuances into account, including the exact consequences for local communities, and the need for more general social restructuring.
Simply banning child labour without broader reforms is dangerous, particularly in UN member states that rely heavily on children being a part of a family’s contribution to the workforce. Often, child labour gets discussed in purely moral terms, which ignores important questions about how the wages earned by kids get replaced, and whether the resulting financial insecurity makes children even less likely to go to school and dive into recreational activities. The UN needs to encourage member states to raise wages by parents and expand social welfare provisions, to account for these issues. Most importantly, the United Nations needs to be clear about the fact that although labour laws can be passed and rewritten, they’re only likely to be enforceable through labour power, which member states must guarantee through various measures.
Many liberal-minded diplomats, exports, and NGO workers agree that child labour needs to be opposed on moral grounds, because of its negative consequences for children’s lives. Obviously, working from a young age, in an exploitative environment, can have many long-term consequences. Physical injuries are common, as well as various degrees of emotional and psychological damage, which are certainly enough to oppose kids being an input of production. Yet in real terms, children’s wages can provide an important revenue stream for many families, which cannot be ignored. Families can be precarious enough that the sudden absence of this money can force children into an even more vulnerable situation. Often, the UN passes resolutions on child labour with the presumption that preventing children from working opens the option of them going to school, but this is only true if the proper investment and infrastructure is in place.
It costs money to send kids to school, even if those schools are said to be free. Indeed, the United Nations needs to show more awareness of the fact that although child labour is morally repugnant, by banning the practice without providing new sources of revenue and necessary services, it’s basically producing a new costs for families, without ways to mitigate or eliminate them. The UN should, in the future, accompany child labour resolutions with welfare provisions like free busing, daycare, textbooks, school lunches, and so on. These welfare state expansions would make it more feasible to send kids to school.
Further, the UN needs to push for higher parental wages, in order to make up for the fact that kids are no longer contributing to a household’s finances. This is likely to be a complicated question, when it comes to family farms and businesses, and the UN shouldn’t shy away from discussing that complexity. The UN should also discuss apprenticeship programs for children who can go to school, and work, at once, if they wish to do that. These are all likely to be contentious discussions, particularly when it comes to large and potentially multinational companies. However, they are essential to understanding the potential ‘benefits’ of child labour, in impoverished settings, which needs to be done in order to eliminate it.
Additionally, the United Nations shouldn’t repeat the common mistake of treating labour rights as though they exist independently of one another. Often, experts will speak of ‘child labour laws’ as though they’re passed in a vacuum, rather than being dependent on a strong labour movement, generally. While a labour law can be written and passed, in a UN member state, and meet international standards as outlined by UN resolutions, enforcement of that same law will be weak in the absence of organised labour. For example, while official laws related to migrant labourers meet international standards in the Persian Gulf, it is at the level of enforcement that workers rights are lacking. Strong labour organising, such as through unions and grassroots collectives, are critical to ensuring that laws are properly enforced, with tactics like strikes and collective bargaining. The UN should push its member states to make room for organised labour, and look at the strength of labour movements as directly related to its ambitions of ending child labour.
International United Nations Watch supports the United Nation’s push to end child labour, and agrees that children should be free of exploitation, as an essential right. However, the UN often overlooks key details when discussing the issue, which is at the expense of making a real difference in children’s lives. The UN needs to push for proper economic restructuring, and both the establishment and extension of welfare and apprenticeship programs, in order to eliminate the need for child labour. Inevitably, this will have to mean a discussion of corporate behaviour, which may require third party mediation by NGOs, as well as a lot of action by the member states, themselves. Importantly, progress on this issue is likely to be stunted, and in many ways lacking, without a strong labour movement to fight for its own rights. Indeed, the UN cannot just push for better laws to be written; it needs a better organised workforce, as well.