Posted by: mensab | February 27, 2008

Issues and Prospects for Human Rights Activism on Child Labor

        Child labor is a long standing social issue and ill in society. A child is supposed to be protected, cared for, schooled and loved. However, child labor denies a child of love, schooling, care, and protection. The issue appeals to the natural empathy to children whom all of us could relate to as we were once a child. It elicits repugnance, outrage and conviction that child labor is wrong. It is through these strong feelings against child labor that I am going to talk about it. These strong feelings and conviction will pave the way for any activism. Especially, I will present child labor as violation of human rights of a child to education. The activism is not just to eliminate child labor. It is also about providing education, vocational training, and support to former child laborers.


All over the world, there are about 218 million children engaged in child labor. They could be found across the globe, from industrialized to non-industrialized countries. Majority of these children work in agriculture. Many are believed to be working in hazardous conditions. Some are in prostitution and pornography, in armed conflict as child soldiers, and in a form of slavery and worst forms of child labor. In short, they are out of school and working elsewhere instead of being in school.


Generally, I would like to explore the different issues and prospects for human rights activism on child labor. Also, I will look at one NGO in India, the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM) or Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF), and its activism against child labor to show the role of civil society groups in human rights protection and promotion.


As the basis for activism, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC), the first legally-binding convention on child’s rights, is able to codify the various conventions that dealt with the rights of a child. In the status report of major treaties on human rights as of June 2004 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), the CRC is the most ratified treaty. The codification and ratification of CRC have facilitated the international and local activism for the rights of a child, particularly against child labor.


Article 32 of the CRC explicitly states that “States Parties recognize 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.” Clearly, it protects a child from economic exploitation of anyone including parents. It also supports Article 28 which is about the right to education of a child and making primary education compulsory and free to all.


To proceed, definition of terms should be set to specify the meaning of key terms used in this essay. However, this is already an issue that I would like to discuss.


Who is a child?


Conventions tackling child labor had set varying age range referring to a child or minimum age for a child to work in a certain industry and sector, not until 1989 when the (CRC) established the age range of a child at under the age of 18. Yet Article 1 of CRC also provides a caveat that if a law stipulates earlier than 18 years of age for a child, then it is that law which prevails. I think the purpose of CRC for having set the age at under 18 is to set the minimum standard. Anything earlier is seen as better for the protection of a child against child labor.


Child labor vs. child work


The contentious distinction between child labor and child work lies in the heart of the problem of child labor. Some cultures based on agriculture recognize the vital contribution of their children in economic activities which are seen as family affairs. Parents bring their children of school age to work and help them in their income-generating activities. For some this is not child labor. For some, it is.


To help shed light on this contention, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) distinguishes child work from child labor.


Child work: Children’s participation in economic activity – that does not negatively affect their health and development or interfere with education, can be positive.  Work that does not interfere with education (light work)  is permitted from the age of 12 years under the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 138. Child labour: This is more narrowly defined and refers to children working in contravention of the above standards.  This means all children below 12 years of age working in any economic activities, those aged 12 to 14 years engaged in harmful work, and all children engaged in the worst forms of child labour.


I think that the key questions here to be asked that can help make the distinction are, does the activity of a child “negatively affect his/her health and development or interfere with education?” Another question is, how young is a child who engages in certain work? The term light work has little help in this case. Edmonds (2007) indicates that in general, “the minimum age of employment is the minimum age of completion of compulsory schooling or at least 15 years old, although 14 can be consistent with the convention in very poor countries” (p.9).


However, further questions beg to be answered on this issue. Up to what extent should the negative effect be on a child’s health and development? This depends on the environment and what the child does when s/he is not at work (Ibid, 2007, p.9-10). Similar question on the degree can also be asked as to the interference with a child’s education. Like for instance, a hard work that takes one day off weekly from a child’s school days does not dramatically and negatively affect the child’s school performance. So this is one of the issues that the activism on child labor has to confront with.


Working conditions


Another issue that is faced by activists for the abolition of child labor is the kind of conditions in which the child works. What measure should be used to determine the harm and hazards which are caused by the working conditions? Edmonds (2007) deals with these controversies “about whether the types of activities that children typically participate in are harmful or beneficial to children and others” (p.7). Again, it depends on what can be considered harmful to a child and on the other activities that a child does outside of work. As a child, s/he is very vulnerable to any conditions that can cause hazards or harm. Will it change the situation if a child is working in a very good condition with decent pay? Will it still be child labor? These are the issues the surround the conditions in which a child works.


Bonded Labor


This is the worst form of child labor. In UNICEF’s definition, “these involve children being enslaved, forcibly recruited, prostituted, trafficked, forced into illegal activities and exposed to hazardous work.” This happens when parents bring a child to an employer and ask for an advanced payment for the future work that a child will do for the employer.


There is a non-government organization (NGO) in India that advocates against bonded labor. It is called Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM) or Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF). This NGO is instrumental in rescuing 76,000 bonded laborers including child laborers from their harsh working conditions and grip of their employers. The organization is not just concerned of taking out these children from bonded labor, but it also provides rehabilitation and primary education for rescued children. It operates 7 elementary schools for these children.


One of the success stories conducted by BMM is the creation of Rugmark. It is a foundation that promotes child labor free carpets from India and ensures the buyers that the laborers have been paid minimum wage (Chowdhry and Beeman, 2001, p.169). An alliance of Indian NGO, German Terre des Hommes, and church-related groups such as the Protestant’s Bread for the World and Catholic’s Misereor made possible the campaign and mobilization of groups for the promotion of Rugmark in the international market (Ibid, 2001, p.168). The availability of an alternative product with advocacy and activism against child labor causes consumers to be aware of the situation, aside from the fact that the sales will help ultimately the cause against child labor.


Prospects of and suggestions for activism against child labor


If there is one cause that is easy to promote and for people to relate to, child labor has the best prospects of being acceptable across the broad spectrum of people. It helps in the promotion of the human rights that the basis for activism, the CRC, is the most ratified convention in the history of human rights. It is also legally-binding for the signatory-states. Another thing going for the cause is that the alternative of child labor is highly valued in various cultures – education.


Some practical suggestions that can strengthen the campaign against child labor are the implementation of compulsory basic and primary education for children, boycotting those products believed to be made by child laborers and companies that hire child laborers, and reminding the governments of their commitment and compliance to the CRC.




Despite the issues that need to be cleared on child labor, the prospects of activism for its abolition are bright. What is clear though is that child labor is outlawed and a violation of human rights. That is why many NGOs are working for the abolition of child labor and they are making progress on their fronts like the BMM.


Activism against child labor is not just about elimination of child labor but also education for children. They go together. One is not complete without the other.






Chowdhry, G. and Mark Beeman. (2001). Challenging Child Labor: Transnational

Activism and India’s Carpet Industry. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 575, Children’s Rights, pp. 158-175.


Edmonds, E. (2007). Child Labor. In T. P. Schultz and J. Strauss, (Eds.). Handbook of Development Economics Volume 4. (Elsevier Science, Amsterdam, North-Holland), forthcoming. Retrieved January 31, 2007 from



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