The Inevitability of Nimble Fingers? Law, Development, and Child Labor

Article excerpt


There are four hundred million children working throughout the world today.(1) Efforts to reduce the incidence of child labor have not worked; the figures are rising, not diminishing.(2) In response, countries and international bodies have become more resolute in their efforts to eradicate child labor's most intolerable forms. Various possible responses to the problem have been canvassed, including(3) (1) the implementation of unilateral trading measures that condition trade upon eradicating child labor,(4) (2) the enforcement of labor standards through international trading agreements,(5) (3) the increased use of corporate codes of conduct,(6) and (4) the adoption of new international labor standards.(7) These options have generated much debate. They have been discussed, and will continue to be discussed, at high levels. Perhaps, however, before taking any new measures, it is worth reflecting on and reconsidering the law already in place. Such an examination may help to determine why the present international framework has not been effective. Through an examination of current law it may be possible to promote more appropriate and direct steps towards combating child labor, while avoiding potentially harmful measures. Action that is based on incorrect assumptions about the causes of child labor and how it can be solved may lead to a worsening of the situation, and not an improvement.

This Article examines development issues that are raised in a legal analysis of international human rights law relating to child labor. In so doing it highlights some of the weaknesses of the present legal approach to the problem. In order to demonstrate better the weaknesses of the system, India is used as an example of a developing country where some of the development issues raised in the legal analysis arise. The second Part of this Article defines the concept of child labor. It undertakes a comprehensive analysis of international legal instruments that deal with the topic of child labor and touches on the relationship between child labor and the right to education. The third Part examines some of the development issues that arise out of that legal analysis and critiques the current legal approach. In particular it focuses on the causes of child labor that cannot be directly attributed to poor economic development and thus warrant a different approach. The final Part of the paper uses India as an example of a country, which, despite progressive legislation and policy, and improved economic development, has not been able to make significant inroads into eradicating the practice of child labor.


In the past decade, the issue of child labor has attracted increasing attention. In times past, the topic has been the focus of action at both the national and international levels, but it has never been an issue of major concern. However, since the mid-1980s, the world has paid greater attention to its most voiceless inhabitants.(8) The adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) by the General Assembly in 1989 illustrates this general trend.(9) In addition to enumerating new rights, the Convention transformed the rights articulated in the earlier Declaration of the Rights of the Child into binding legal obligations.(10)

Within the United Nations' structure, both the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights have done work in the area of child labor.(11) However, it is the International Labour Organization (ILO) in particular which has embarked on a mission to draw attention to this issue.(12) In 1991 the ILO introduced an International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), which, by 1998, was operational in fifty countries.(13) In March 1996 the ILO governing body put child labor on the agenda for the 1998 session of the International Labor Conference, with the objective of getting the international community to adopt a new convention aimed at prohibiting intolerable forms of child labor. …