Interview | Edward van Daalen – Key issues on child labour and the ILO

What, today, constitutes “child labour”? What issues surrounding the concept of child labour changed over the course of the past 100 years? And what now is the ILO doing to reach Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals: eradicating child labour in all its forms by 2025? We sat down with Edward van Daalen, researcher in law at the Centre for Children’s Rights Studies of the University of Geneva, and co-author of the article The ILO’s Shifts in Child Labour Policy: Regulation and Abolition that appeared in our 11th thematic issue of International Development Policy, The ILO@100, to get his take on these questions.

Legend: Members of the working children’s movement MANTHOC participating in the 2017 May Day demonstrations in Lima, Peru. (photo: Edward van Daalen).

DevPol team: In your article you have identified the ways in which the ILO’s normative position towards Child Labour has evolved since its inception in 1919. Could you summarise the key observations in this regard, particularly with reference to what is referred to as the ‘two plank’ approach, and how these changes appeared over different periods of time?

Edward van Daalen: We analysed the ILO’s longstanding child labour policy since the first ILO Constitution of 1919, which included the abolition of child labour as one of the Organization’s fundamental principles. Despite this apparent blanket-ban approach, the first minimum age conventions adopted in the inter-war period were sector-specific conventions aimed at regulating only the ‘non-beneficial’ forms of child labour, by which the ILO meant those forms that were considered intrinsically problematic, unlike, for example, work within the family. After WWII the ILO became an UN special agency and with it came a new Constitution that no longer included a provision leading to the abolition of child labour, as it was considered too rigid for the ILO’s new flexible outlook. It was only when the looming economic crisis of the 1970s brought an end to the post-war economic boom that for the first time a comprehensive ban on child labour was introduced by means of the 1973 Minimum Age Convention. While the aim to abolish all child labour was legally and institutionally reinstalled, a more pragmatic ‘two-plank’ policy accompanied it, which urged member states to first protect working children by improving their working conditions, while keeping the abolition of child labour as a long-term objective. During the latter half of the 1990s, the success of IPEC (the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour) and the call for a new Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour resulted in a shift away from protecting and improving children’s working conditions. Instead, the global trend moved towards the ILO’s current policy of first eradicating the worst forms as a stepping stone to eradicating all forms by 2025. With this shift, the objective of ‘protecting and improving’ seemed to have disappeared entirely from the ILO’s discourse and practice.

You describe some of the tensions between different approaches towards regulation, humanisation and abolition of Child Labour. How can we understand the changes in ILO’s policies in the context of what you refer to as a new way of ‘development thinking’?

As we point out in our chapter, there is an inherent tension in the idea of regulating a phenomenon while at the same time trying to abolish it, to the extent that one can ask whether the two objectives can ever really coexist. The ILO adopted the 1973 Minimum Age Convention with the overall aim of eradicating all forms of child labour in a new post-colonial world, in which initiatives like the New International Economic Order (NIEO) influenced the way of development thinking at UN agencies. There was a desire for more pragmatic solutions that took into account the complex realities in many of the former colonies. The ILO quickly realised that, as a global policy maker, it also had to address the fact that abolition was not a realistic goal for most countries, who consequently did not ratify the convention. The ‘two-plank’ policy was aimed to help such countries to first make sure that the children that did work could do so under regulated and dignified conditions. This was a part of the so-called ‘legislation first’ approach by which countries were encouraged to ratify the minimum age standards to use them as a benchmark and target. We show that this tension only really became problematic for the ILO when child labour took a more prominent place on the international development agenda. This occurred when the ILO started to offer direct technical and financial support to such pragmatic programmes through IPEC, but now under the moralised gaze of the public eye.

What does studying the shifts in the normative policy and position of the ILO over time tell us, specifically with regard to the conceptual value of seeing this as series of ‘translations’ of children’s rights?

Like many international normative frameworks concerning the rights of children, the notion of ‘child labour’ is an age-based regime. A genealogy of this regime shows that there is nothing ‘natural’ about the mainstream claim that children have a fundamental human right to be free from child labour, meaning freedom from work until the age of 14 (in most countries). In fact, these global standards and policies are negotiated and heavily informed by economic and political interests, often side-lining what would be in the best interest of working children themselves. Conceptualising such developments and outcomes as translations of children’s rights allows for analysing them as such. At the same time, it provides space for different conceptions and translations of (working) children’s rights, like those of organised working children who claim the right to be protected and to work under dignified conditions.

How and when does defining Child Labour become a key concern and what consequences does this continue to have with regard to the work of the ILO today?

The legal, age-based, definition of child labour of the 1973 Minimum Age Convention stipulates that, in simple terms, ‘child labour’ means most work done by children under 14, and all hazardous work done by children under the age of 18. For the ILO’s own global campaign against child labour, this categorisation became key for the publication of the global estimates of child labour which have become the single most important instrument for shaping the public opinion. These global estimates are published every four years and the continuous decline in child labour that these estimates suggest has become the ILO’s primary evidence of the success of its approach. It is, however, impossible to distinguish the effects of the international standards from that of other factors possibly contributing to a global decline in child labour. One of the main problems with this narrow way of defining child labour and the use of global estimates is that it excludes millions of children who could possibly benefit from the legal protection of the ILO’s child labour conventions. For instance, the latest global estimates published in 2017 indicate that there are 54 million children between the age of 5 and 14 years of age who do household chores for at least 21 hours per week. Because of how child labour is defined, these children are not protected by the ILO conventions, nor included in the official estimates.

In hindsight, how do you historically situate the position of the ILO and its continuing relevance among the various other institutions and actors functioning towards the betterment of children’s rights and work? What would you recommend to them?

Until the 1990s the ILO was the only international organisation concerned with child labour and working children. The adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the ILO’s own effort to constitute a global movement against child labour resulted in ‘competition’ from other UN agencies, in particular UNICEF, and INGO’s such as Save the Children and Terre des Hommes. At the same time, the ILO itself went beyond its constitutional mandate of setting international labour standards, as it offered technical assistance programmes through IPEC and adopted the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention which covered child rights issues many considered to be beyond the scope of international labour relations, like child soldiering, drug trafficking and child prostitution and pornography. Notwithstanding the critiques, over the last two decades the ILO has been very successful in securing almost universal ratification of both the Minimum Age Convention and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention. Within the current field of child labour, we can see the ILO slowly making its way back to its original mandate of monitoring international standards, re-delegating the responsibility of implementing them to member states and other international organisations. To this end, the ILO initiated Alliance 8.7, a multi-stakeholder platform in support of achieving Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals that aims to eradicate child labour in all its forms by 2025. However, as this objective cannot realistically be attained and millions of working children for whom work is unavoidable are still in need of protection we would recommend the ILO to reach out further to the research community, other international development actors as well as local governments and social movements to develop locally relevant, evidence-based policies for dealing with the diversity of children’s work in the world’s fast changing formal and informal economies.


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