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Human Rights Quarterly 24.1 (2002) 177-204

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Analyzing Child Labor as a Human Rights Issue:
Its Causes, Aggravating Policies, and Alternative Proposals

Zehra F. Arat


I. Introduction

The international community has been concerned about child labor for a long time and attempted to curb it at the first session of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1919 by establishing fourteen years as the minimum age for children to be employed in industry. 1 In 1973, the Minimum Age Convention of the ILO (Convention 138, or C138) defined child labor as economic activity performed by a person under the age of fifteen, and prohibited it for being hazardous to the physical, mental, and moral well-being of the child as well as for preventing effective schooling. 2 The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the General [End Page 177] Assembly on 20 November 1989, also included several articles against economic exploitation and abuse of children. 3

Among the human rights conventions of the United Nations (UN), the Convention on the Rights of the Child enjoys a special status and popularity. A record number of countries participated in the Convention's treaty-signing ceremony in January 1990, and the Convention broke UN records again by entering into force on 25 September 1990, less than a year after being adopted. 4 As this paper was written at the end of 2000, this Convention was the closest to achieving universal ratification with 191 state parties--the only exceptions being the United States, which signed it but did not ratify it, and Somalia, which did neither.

Despite this high level of state support for the convention on children's rights, only a minority of the world's children fully enjoys the rights included in it, and many children are denied childhood. While Article 32 of the Convention obligates states to protect children "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," millions of children are overburdened with adult responsibilities and work in hazardous conditions. 5

In fact, after not being able to gather enough support for the Minimum Age Convention--it is ratified by only 103 states because it is considered too complex and difficult to implement--the ILO adopted a new convention, Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (C182), in 1999. The Convention, which entered into force on 19 November 2000, and acquired forty-nine ratifications, prioritizes the struggle against the worst forms of child labor and calls for their elimination for all persons under the age of eighteen. 6 [End Page 178]

The critics of child labor constitute a diverse group which opposes the practice of child labor for concerns ranging from moral to economic reasons, including:

  • allowing child labor means stealing the childhood of millions of children;
  • child laborers are subject to economic exploitation because they are paid at the lowest rates;
  • child labor replaces adult labor because it is preferred by employers for being cheap and docile;
  • the widespread use of child labor results in lower wages for all laborers;
  • children usually work under the worst working conditions, and these unhealthy, unsafe, dangerous, and poisonous work environments cause physical deformations and long-term health care problems in children;
  • child labor perpetuates poverty because child laborers, deprived of education or healthy physical development, are likely to become adults with low earning prospects;
  • countries that allow child labor are able to lower the labor cost, thus, they not only attract investors but also benefit from "unfair trade" due to their low production cost. 7

No matter which consequence of child labor has been their primary concern, the critics, especially those located in the industrial societies, tend to organize their efforts around banning child labor through trade sanctions, import restrictions, and consumer boycotts. UNICEF opposes child labor not only for being exploitative but also for endangering children's physical, cognitive, emotional...


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