The universal ratification of a labour standard is cause for celebration and reflection
The welcome decision by the Kingdom of Tonga to outlaw the worst forms of child labour is the first time in the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s 101-year history that a labour standard has been universally ratified. Convention 182, which was adopted in the 1999 annual international labour conference, prohibits the sexual exploitation of children, trafficking, deployment in armed conflict and other conditions that compromise their overall well-being. The Convention complements the ILO’s efforts under the 1973 Minimum Age Convention to prevent the employment of children below a lower age threshold. Under the influence of both these ILO standards, millions of young boys and girls have been rescued from hazardous conditions of work. Concomitantly, these have resulted in significant increases in enrolments in primary education. The landmark ratification, however, does not detract from the enormity of the challenge that remains. An estimated 152 million are trapped in child labour and 72 million of them are engaged in hazardous work. If anything, current efforts would have to be stepped up significantly to achieve the ambitious goal of total abolition of the scourge of child labour by 2025. But the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening a reversal of recent gains, with widespread job losses, deterioration in conditions of work, decline in household incomes and temporary school closures.
The historic first universal ratification of a global labour standard may be an occasion for celebration; it is nonetheless a moment for sober reflection. The two instruments on child labour are among the eight core ILO Conventions regarded as embodying the spirit of the 1998 declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work. Instruments relating to the freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the elimination of discrimination in employment and occupation are among the others. These conventions provide the necessary framework to counteract the predominance of informality in the conditions of work and ought to be a priority for governments. Though belated, India has signalled its legal commitment to the elimination of child labour with its 2017 ratification of Convention 182 and the instrument prescribing the minimum age of work for children. As the world prepares to designate 2021 as the year to abolish child labour, governments must seize the moment to instil hope in the future generations.