Less work, more play

Combating Child Labour: A Review of Policies
OECD Observer

Rachid is the first in line to apply for work when the factory comes to town. He is hired, along with a few of his friends. So far so good.

The hours would be long, but the pay seems okay compared with the odd jobs he has been picking up around the city. And as this is a large well-known firm, the job should be a secure one. The trouble is, Rachid is only 11 years old.

Employing children is not uncommon practice in many developing countries and may even have local, cultural backing. Economic growth may eventually provide the social, political and institutional means needed to reduce the incidence of child labour in developing countries. But if growth and investment (including foreign investment) are too reliant on poor labour practices, these may in fact hold back rather than spur development, and so prolong the problem. Early action can be taken. Combating Child Labour reviews the effectiveness of policies that have been implemented to combat this problem, while at the same time securing the development prospects of the countries concerned.

Child labour is not easy to measure. Most national labour force surveys do not collect information for persons under 15 on the assumption that children are not in the labour force. Yet, according to ILO estimates, more than 12% of the world’s children aged 5-9 are at work. The figure rises to 23% for children aged 10-14, with almost 245 million children subject to child labour. Of these, about 179 million are subject to the worst forms of employment, such as slavery, forced or bonded labour, hazardous work, prostitution and other illicit activities carried out under exploitative conditions.

The causes of child labour are complex, and prohibiting it will not work by itself. In fact, if child labour is outlawed without providing children with a viable alternative, including education, the risk is that criminal activity such as child trafficking will increase. The scores of institutions that are working to eradicate the exploitation of under-age workers recognise that the worst abuses of children are, in fact, already illegal in many countries. The stickler is the inseparable dynamics between child labour and economic development. For many families, especially in Africa and Asia, children’s earnings put food on the family table.

Advances are being made. Programmes like Progresa in Mexico or Bolsa Scola in Brazil which provide support to families that send their children to school, seem to work well, and at a relatively low cost. Such programmes are based on incentives, instead of sanctions, and they provide a good opportunity to create a virtuous cycle between higher school attendance, lower child labour and better economic development.

The growing public pressure for good corporate ethics has CEOs self-consciously defending their labour practices as regulators peek over their shoulders. For instance, the Rugmark Foundation has helped to clean up the carpet industry in India, Nepal and Pakistan. Manufacturers earn the Rugmark certification by agreeing not to employ children under 14, to pay adults the minimum wage, to register all of their production’s looms, and to allow access to the looms for unannounced inspections. It seems to be working. Eight years ago, one illegal child worker was found in every five inspections, and today the proportion is one in nineteen.

Combating Child Labour also calls for a stronger fight against child trafficking and prostitution. It requires international cooperation in the judiciary field and strong political will at all levels to ensure that children like Rachid can look forward to a better future.

©OECD Observer No 239, September 2003 

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