Child Labour in a Globalized World: A Legal Analysis of ILO Action

By Allain, Jean | International Labour Review, September 2010 | Go to article overview
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Child Labour in a Globalized World: A Legal Analysis of ILO Action


Allain, Jean, International Labour Review


Child labour in a globalized world: A legal analysis of ILO action. Edited by Giuseppe NESI, Luca NOGLER and Marco PERTILE. Aldershot, Ashgate, 2008. xxiv + 467 pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-7222-7.

Child labour in a globalized world is sold as a reference book for those whose research interests intersect with both child rights and labour rights. While more rigorous editing could have saved the reader the unnecessary overlap manifest across a number of chapters and brought the overall size of the volume down to its essence, mining Child labour in a globalized world for its veins of gold is worth the exercise. The volume itself is the product of a research project undertaken in the Department of Law at the University of Trento - hence the dominance of Italian authors - which "aimed to investigate the relevant legal instruments and their implementation through the ILO supervisory system and technical cooperative activities" (p. xi).

The precious metal first shows up in the work of Matteo Borzaga, whose chapter6 explains the process by which the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138), came to be displaced by the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182). The outline of that story is worth recounting here as it provides the political context from which Convention No. 182 emerged and thus assists in its proper interpretation by providing greater depth of understanding in regard to its object and purpose.

Having examined the provisions of the Minimum Age Convention, 1973, Matteo Borzaga concludes that its failings result from its "Western-centric approach". This Convention is a revision and consolidation of ten earlier ILO Conventions which had dealt with minimum age requirements in particular industries.7 In keeping with the general ILO regime, Article 1 of the Convention requires States parties "to pursue a national policy designed to ensure the effective abolition of child labour and to raise progressively the minimum age for admission to employment or work to a level consistent with the fullest physical and mental development of young persons". As Borzaga notes, this "supposedly programmatic approach [...] contrasts with the prescriptive character of other provisions" of the Convention (p. 46). It is these prescriptive characteristics - and specifically the requirement of Article 2(3) that "the minimum age [...] shall not be less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case, shall not be less than 15 years" - which ultimately forced the change of course that lead to the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182).

What made the Minimum Age Convention "anachronistic", Borzaga argues, was the emergence of newly independent States as part of the process of decolonization, which after the end of the Cold War sought to assert a different concept of childhood that included contribution to "family maintenance". As a result, "limitations on the minimum age for admission to employment or work no longer constituted a shared value" (p. 54). This was most evident from the fact that over a 25-year period, only 46 States had ratified Convention No. 138, and most of them were Western.

The ILO's response was to adopt the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182), the essence of which echoes Article 32 of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child in recognizing "the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any 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". Convention No. 182 thus overcame "the original Western-centric idea that children should have a right not to work" and replaced it with a "discerned shared value" focused on the elimination of the worst forms not only of child labour but also of activities affecting children (p. 61).

As Lee Swepston shows in his chapter,8 the contribution of the ILO's 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work to the 1999 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention has been invaluable, as a promotional tool which sought to move States to ratify eight Conventions deemed fundamental to the work of the ILO.

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