4:54 AM Nov 3, 1995


Geneva 2 Nov (Chakravarthi Raghavan) -- In a new report on Child Labour, the International Labour Organization has cautioned against trade-linked measures concentrating solely on child labour in the export sector since these may merely drive child labour underground or into even more unregulated economic sectors.

Even threat of trade boycotts which encourage debates in countries having child labour problems while a step in the right direction, could also endanger, rather than protect, those children at work since it may precipitate dismissal of children already at work, the ILO adds.

Experience shows that child labour is a "solvable problem" where sufficient progress can be made by well-designed policies and actions if there is sufficient public and government interest and sufficient support is mobilized. There is no need to await general prosperity or other prior social conditions before taking action, the ILO says in the report on Child Labour to the ILO Governing Body now in session. The issue of child labour is due to be discussed in the Committee on Employment and Social policy, and is proposed as an item for discussion at the 1998 ILO annual conference for general discussion.

The ILO study suggests that use of child labour in industries like carpets-making in India is the result of an 'internationally driven demand' in a 'free global market' where importers abroad (as in the US) are ready to switch import-sourcing, such as Indian carpets, if prices rose even by about 15% as a result of using adult-wage labour. "In such cases," ILO stresses, "the demand for child labour is effectively international, and action to discourage it needs to encompass all major producers as to avoid 'beggar-they-neighbour' competition.

The study, based on field surveys on the economics of use of child labour, that labour-cost savings in use of child labour are surprisingly small -- as little as 5% percent in bangle industry and 5-10 percent in the carpet industry, for example, in India.

The reason why in the carpet industry child labour seems economic is because the 'gains' go to loom owners -- poor, small contractors, each with only one or two looms working to a slim profit margin. Their income is so modest that a very small levy on the final consumer price -- one-third the sales tax in many industrialized countries -- would be sufficient to subsidize cost to the loom owners of using exclusively adult labour, provided the transfer payments could be targeted.

Discussing the use of negative economic incentives to discourage demand for child workers, the ILO notes that employment of children is sometimes discouraged through consumer action, government threats against products made with child labour or industry codes of conduct to prohibit use of child workers.

The ILO's International Programme on Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) experience shows that the mere threat of trade boycotts encourage debates in the countries concerned, which is a step in the right direction.

"However," the report adds, "it also suggests that one immediate consequence, the precipitous dismissal of children already at work can also endanger, rather than protect, those children.

"In addition, undertaking measures which concentrate solely on child labour in the export sector may have the effect of driving child labour underground, further into the shadows, and into even more unregulated economic sectors."

The ILO says there is lack of adequate and reliable data to compare use of child labour (between 5-14 years) across countries and over time and the ILO Bureau of Statistics global estimate, for 1990, of 78.5 million or 13.7% in that age group may be a gross under-estimate.

The report brings out that child labour can be found everywhere, but more prevalent in the developing countries -- with Asia and its dense population density, accounting in absolute numbers for 50% of the world's child labour.

While child labour is much less common in industrialized countries, in recent years the phenomenon is growing again in several places.

While national child labour surveys are increasingly being undertaken in developing world, the only industrialized country where a survey has been done was in Turkey in 1994. This found that 8.3 percent of children between 6-14 age group were economically active.

World attention on use of child labour in the Third World focuses exclusively on predominantly export industries -- textiles, clothing, carpets and footwear -- these are relatively few compared to those employed in branches of economic activity geared essentially to satisfaction of domestic consumption. Child labour in export sectors is more common in plantations than in manufacturing. For the most part child labour is unpaid family workers in a family enterprise -- and is very rate in medium or large enterprises.

Poverty is the single greatest force creating flow of children into the work place. Not only does it force many children to work full-time for their own survival, but it makes it impossible for families to invest in alternative activities, such as education.

The price for families to invest in their children's education can be very high. Even most 'free' public education is very expensive -- since the family is expected to meet cost of books and other school supplies, uniforms, clothes, transportation and, sometimes, unofficial payments to teachers. It may amount to as much as one-third of income of a poor family. That is why, in many places, children work to earn money to pay for their own school expenses. Such child labour in fact supports the school system and such cost transfers are part of the results of "economic adjustment policy".

Detailing social and economic consequences of child labour and varying hazards in different employments, the study says that many researchers and practitioners have thus come to feel that most negative social effects of child labour come from specific working conditions inimical to the safety and development of children.

For that reason, there is a growing opinion that national and international efforts need to be more sharply focused on the truly abusive and hazardous forms of child labour.

In developing regions, where most child labour is found, even in countries with progressive child labour legislation, child labour was regarded as an inevitable companion to poverty and there was a laissez-faire attitude. Only recently, they have awakened to the serious social, economic and development implications of child labour and they have begun to take a far more vigorous stance against child labour, and to ask searching questions about the most viable and effective actions to control and eliminate it.

No action can be successful without clear picture of needs, constraints and opportunities and high-quality information thus becomes a high priority in terms of national actions. Such data and their publication also helps arousing public opinion in the countries themselves and enable actions by governments (at all levels), labour, capital and non-governmental organizations -- all of whom have to join hands and cooperate to develop an effective national action plan.

Top priority, according to the ILO, should go to preventing and eliminating participation of child labour in economic activities most detrimental to them, including bonded or slave child labour.

Such national plans should also be part of a broader national effort to promote welfare and development of children.

The ILO study points to the discrepancies in many countries between the legal provisions on minimum years of schooling and the minimum age for employment. These should be consistent so that children of poor families don't drop out of school if they can get jobs legally, nor are they kept idle when they come out of school, but can't be employed.

There is also need for actions to extend and improve schooling for the poor.

Effective enforcement against child labour could be extended to farms, small enterprises and homes outside the formal sector through systematic participation of local communities in monitoring working conditions of their children.

Developing countries are also exploring supply-side approaches to child labour, "more intensively than did modern industrialized countries at a similar level in their own development," the ILO points out.

These approaches consist in providing services to children or their families that reduce the likelihood of children entering the job market or being damaged by the work they do. These allow for precise targeting and adapted to diverse conditions.

ILO adds: "There is much to be learnt from developing countries, as they accumulate experience in combating child labour under their own conditions, especially through their experiments with supply-side measures... Their findings and discoveries will be a rich source of new ideas and approaches to complement the existing basic instruments, such as minimum-age legislation, compulsory education and a public sector labour inspectorate."