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Human Rights Quarterly 22.4 (2000) 942-987
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Strategic Choices in the International Campaign Against Child Labor
David M. Smolin
On 17 June 1999, the 87th Session of the General Conference of the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted a Convention and accompanying Recommendation Concerning the Prohibition and Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. 1 The adoption of this Convention represents a significant strategic shift in the international campaign against child labor. The purpose of this article is to analyze this strategic shift, and propose refinements and additional methodologies which could guide the movement. Specifically, this article will place the new Convention in the context of previously existing international child labor standards, describe and critique the shift of strategy represented by the new convention, and discuss how the "entitlement" theory of the economist Amartya Sen could be beneficial in guiding the activism of the child labor movement toward greater effectiveness. [End Page 942]
II. Background of the New Convention: The Four Stages of ILO Activism on Child Labor
Although the ILO has been adopting Conventions relating to child labor since 1919, the first year of its existence, the activism of the ILO in regard to child labor has passed through four distinct stages. Particularly since this author has recently described these four stages in greater detail elsewhere, a short summary of this background should suffice for present purposes. 2
First, the ILO between 1919 and 1932 created five area-specific Minimum Age Conventions: Industry (1919), 3 Sea (1920), 4 Agriculture (1921), 5 Trimmers and Stokers (1921), 6 and Non-Industrial Employment (1932). 7 The last of these, Non-Industrial Employment, was designed as a catch-all Convention covering all areas not included within the prior industrial, agricultural, and sea conventions. Thus, the ILO had attempted by 1932 to create a comprehensive set of conventions establishing minimum ages of employment. The standards of these initial Conventions, however, were understandably lax by contemporary standards. For example, the Agriculture Convention failed to establish any minimum age for employment "outside the hours fixed for school attendance," so long as school attendance was not prejudiced. 8 There were broad exemptions for employment within a family business 9 and for "domestic work in the family performed by members of that family." 10 The usual minimum age established for full-time employment was fourteen, with younger ages permitted specifically for India and Japan. 11 [End Page 943]
The ILO Constitution 12 (adopted in 1919) and these five initial conventions failed to name the abolition of child labor as a goal or purpose, or even to use the term "child labor." Persons between the ages of fourteen and seventeen were generally referred to as "young persons" or "adolescents," rather than as "children." 13
The second stage of ILO activism on child labor primarily involved creating revised versions of the Minimum Age Sea (1936), Industry (1937), and Non-Industrial Employment (1937) Conventions raising the primary minimum age for full-time employment from fourteen to fifteen. 14 A corresponding change of terminology referred to "children" as those under the age of fifteen, or still within the compulsory education laws, and "young persons or adolescents" as those between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. 15 Approximately two decades later, the ILO adopted Minimum Age Conventions for Fisherman (1959) 16 and then for Underground Work (1965), 17 presumably for the purpose of raising minimum ages for particularly hazardous forms of employment.
Thus, in its initial two periods of activity on child labor, encompassing over fifty years, the ILO was concerned principally with establishing fourteen (and then later fifteen) as a basic minimum age for most forms of employment outside the context of a family. The rhetoric and terminology of "abolishing child labor" were absent from the Conventions of this period. Indeed, the ILO's foundational 1944 Philadelphia Declaration of Principles, which clarified the purposes of the ILO, failed to include the abolition of child labor within the core principles of the ILO, and referred to children only in the context of "provision for child welfare and maternity protection...