Written by Olivia Serra Calvo
Children’s protection is a key element of human rights. Child labor represents a historical global issue depriving children of their childhood, their potential and dignity, affecting both their physical and mental development (ILO, n.d.).
Besides the international legal grounds set out by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) (1948), and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (European Union, 2010) at the regional level, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children (UNCRC) (1989) represents a detailed legal codification focusing on the issue. Additionally, the International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions 138 (1973) and 182 (1999) , lay down the basic legal protection against the worst forms of child labor and establish minimum age for the admission of employment and work, respectively.
Nonetheless, despite the numerous efforts made by international organizations, companies, NGOs and businesses, among others, to tackle the issue, it is still nowadays a very common phenomenon. Latest data estimates that 160 million children are in labor, of which 79 million participate in hazardous work (ILO, 2021, p.8) meaning that worldwide, every 10 children, 1 is in labor (ILO, 2021, p.8). These are high numbers considering the existence of legally binding documents codifying the protection of children’s rights against all forms of child labor.
The issue of child labor in Europe
Despite strong indicators signal patterns of child labor in Western regions such as Europe , the exploitation of children in the labor force tends to be portrayed as an issue concerning developing countries exclusively. Monitoring actions seem to mostly take place in countries in Eastern Europe, which still carry the stigma of development and ongoing democratization. Indeed, most reports by the ILO tend to focus on countries in the Global South, only mentioning child labor in Europe in a marginal way (ILO, 2017; ILO 2021).
When looking at regional data, Europe is always aggregated with Central Asia, which provides a biased vision of child labor, considering that numbers in Central Asia are known to be considerably higher. For instance, global institutions like the World Bank (2000-2014) and UNICEF (2010-2019) do not provide country-specific data on European countries except some located in the East of the region. This can be observed in the table below, which shows the only available data of European countries. The lack of consistent data throughout the years is also something to highlight. Most importantly, however, the focus on developing countries accentuates a perception of child labor as a problem of the past, perpetuating the conformity with the absence of research and monitoring.
UNICEF data warehouse: Cross-sector indicators:
Furthermore, more general attempts to map the situation in Europe have been largely inaccurate due to a lack of data and information in addressing the complexity and transnational links of child labour, thus failing to really understand the extent of the situation (Mckechnie & Hobbs, 1999; Muiznieks, 2013). The issue of invisibilization of child labor in the global North was brought up by Jim McKechnie and Sandy Hobbs (1999) in their research. Considering that their study was conducted more than 20 years ago it would have been expected that a bigger amount of data would exist.They found evidence of child labor in the UK and concluded that it could be extrapolated to other European countries, considering that “[w]here systematic study ha[d] taken place, the evidence is that children can be found participating in the workforce” (Mckechnie & Hobbs, 1999, p. 95). Yet, findings suggesting possible improvements remain to be seen.
EU’s impact on child labor outside its borders
Current data shows that developing countries have large amounts of children in labor (ILO, 2021). The root causes of such phenomena include poverty, demographics, education and lack of infrastructures, culture and traditions, gender inequality and social barriers (High, 2019; UNICEF, 2018). All of these, combined with the presence of multinational companies, most of them of Western origins, makes the situation more complex than it already is. Multinational corporations delocalize the production process to third countries, usually due to favorable conditions in economic and legal terms. Such a move creates large supply chains with several tiers that make monitoring tasks difficult and offer opportunities for the use of children as workforce.
International institutions recognize the problematic of human rights in supply chains and have translated their efforts to eliminate child labor into voluntary guidelines such as the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (2011) and the OECD Guidelines (2001). A core element of both documents is the recommendation for businesses to include human rights criterias through the whole supply chain, to detect breachments of human rights like child labor.
Those guidelines are not legally-binding and it is up to businesses and governments to follow them. Here is where the EU Draft Directive on Corporate Due Diligence and Corporate Accountability gains relevance. This draft would make mandatory the creation, implementation and supervision of a due diligence strategy (Art. 4 & 8), to companies that participate in the EU’s internal market regardless of the location of its headquarters (Recital 12 & Art. 1 (1)). The adoption of such a Directive would be a milestone in the advancement of child labor setting the issue as a priority in multinationals’ agenda.
Future of child labor
Considering the red flags raised by the limited information, it is clear that further research on child labor in Europe and its transnational link is necessary; especially in the current circumstances of declining economic growth due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In order to tackle child labor, effective monitoring and data gathering at a global level is fundamental; without it, prevention cannot take place, undermining the protection of human rights. Action has been recently undertaken by the EU to tackle child labor outside EU borders in the form of commitments and a potential Directive. Nevertheless, it is relevant to recall that laws and political commitments are not enough when related to human rights. Rather, there is a strong need to tackle structural and cultural factors that make child labor prevalent in societies worldwide.
European Commission. (2021). EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child. https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/ds0821040enn_002.pdf
European Union. (2010). Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. In Official Journal of the European Union C83 (Vol. 53, p. 380). European Union.
European Parliament resolution with recommendations to the Commission on Corporate Due Diligence and Corporate Accountability, 10 March 2021, 2020/2129(INL) available at: www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2021-0073_EN.html
High, D. (2019). Tackling child labor: 2019 Report. https://www.nestle.com/sites/default/files/2019-12/nestle-tackling-child-labor-report-2019-en.pdf
International Labour Office (ILO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). (2021). Child labor, global estimates 2020: Trends and the road forward. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—ipec/documents/publication/wcms_797515.pdf
International Labour Office (ILO) (2017). Global estimates of child labour: Results and trends, 2012-2016. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575499.pdf
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International Labour Organization (ILO), Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, C182, 17 June 1999, C182, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ddb6e0c4.html
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McKechnie, J, & Hobbs, S. (1999). Child Labour: The View from the North. Childhood, 6(1), 89–100. https://doi.org/10.1177/0907568299006001007
Muiznieks, N. (2013). Child Labour in Europe: a persisting challenge. Commissioner for Human Rights. https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/child-labour-in-europe-a-persisting-challen-1
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. 2001. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises: Text, Commentary and Clarifications. Paris: OECD.
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United Nations. (2011). The UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights. In Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (pp. 45–63). https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351171922-3
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Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948, (resolution 217 A), adopted 10 December 1948.
World Bank (2000-2014). Children in employment, total (% of children ages 7-14) – Austria, Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Moldova, Portugal, North Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.0714.ZS?end=2014&locations=AT-AL-BY-BA-GE-MD-PT-MK-RS-UA&most_recent_value_desc=true&start=2000&type=shaded&view=chart&year=2000