Child labour is wrong because it has the potential to disrupt a child’s education, and can bring great physical and psychological harm to the child. Such is described in Article 32 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which warns against this and which provides the basis for national legislation against child labour.
Taking Malta as an example, the country’s legislation makes the employment of children under the age of sixteen illegal and there are also other limits on the number and kind of hours (e.g. night work) that children are allowed to work. Some exceptions to this are also possible and these are subject to the written permission of the Director of Education, who has the legal responsibility for closely examining whether a particular employment poses any risks to the education, health and safety of the child.
Children who are at least thirteen years of age can find employment provided this is for the purposes of taking part in cultural, artistic, sports, advertising or educational activities, approved by the Minister responsible for Education. At fourteen years of age, children can work under a combined work/training scheme or an in-plant work-experience scheme approved by the Minister responsible for Education.
Although Malta’s framework is solid, one feels that it does not always address the vulnerabilities of children at or above the age of sixteen who are free to work like adults in spite of the fact that they are not yet adults. Efforts must equally be focused on ensuring that the legal safeguards that are in place are strictly enforced so that all cases of child labour are identified and the offenders are brought to justice and are served sentences that deter them and others from illegally employing children.
Despite various goals set by the international community and agencies, the employment of children in violation and defiance of their rights remains a formidable challenge in many parts of the world. The International Labour Organisation estimates that in Sub-Saharan Africa 1 in 4 children aged 5-17 work, compared to 1-6 in Asia Pacific and 1 in 10 in Latin America.
Such disconcerting figures point to the need for all countries to adopt robust measures, both at a legal and policy level, to eradicate child labour on their territory. First of all, efforts should be made to strengthen national legal frameworks against child labour, which should always be guided by the principles enshrined in the aforementioned article of the UNCRC.
At a policy level, efforts should be directed towards addressing the financial and cultural deficits of the families of children who are in employment. This means that these families must be helped to increase and better manage the economic resources at their disposal, and should be educated about their children’s needs and rights vis-à-vis education and employment. Policies should ensure that all children successfully complete their secondary education before seeking employment and should be strongly encouraged to continue their education past the secondary level.
Finally, international cooperation, in the form of a legal prohibition at a national level of the importation of goods that are produced directly or indirectly through child labour, is an essential strategy in the fight against the scourge of child labour.
The ambitious but achievable target set by the International Labour Organisation of eliminating the worst forms of child labour by 2016 can be reached only if all nations act individually and together in a resolute manner. The World Day against Child Labour, which is celebrated today, should serve as a rallying call to step up efforts to protect children from child labour.