For the first time in the history an international labour convention on the worst forms of child labour has been ratified by all 187 member states of the International Labour Organization (ILO) on 4 August. Universal ratification of the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour 1999 No. 182 was achieved after the Kingdom of Tonga, the final country to do so, ratified the convention which is the most rapidly ratified convention in the 101 year history of the organisation.
Titilupe Fanetupouvava’u Tuivakano, ambassador for the Kingdom of Tonga, formally deposited the ratification instruments with Guy Ryder, director-general of ILO, for the convention which calls for the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour including slavery, forced labour and trafficking. The convention, adopted by the ILO member states meeting in Geneva in 1999, also prohibits the use of children in armed conflict, prostitution, pornography and illicit activities such as drug trafficking and in hazardous work.
Guy Ryder, director-general at the ILO, says the ILO estimates there are 152 million children in child labour with 73 million of whom are in hazardous work. He says 70% of all child labour takes place in agriculture and is mostly related to poverty and parents’ difficulties finding decent work. “Universal ratification of Convention 182 is a historic first that means all children now have legal protection against the worst forms of child labour. It reflects a global commitment that the worst forms of child labour such as slavery, sexual exploitation, use of children in armed conflict or other illicit or hazardous work that compromises children’s health, morals or psychological wellbeing have no place in our society,” says Ryder.
Sharan Burrow, secretary-general of the International Trade Union Confederation, welcomed the ratification saying universal ratification of Convention 182 is a potent and timely reminder of the importance of ILO standards and need for multilateral solutions to global problems. She says child labour is a grievous violation of fundamental rights and it is incumbent on the ILO’s constituents and international community to ensure this convention is fully implemented including through due diligence in global supply chains.
Roberto Suárez Santos, secretary-general of the International Organization of Employers, says the business community is aware of and acting on the need to do business with respect for children’s rights. He says this is even more urgent in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic and we cannot allow the fight against the worst form of child labour to backslide, but must together work towards the end of child labour in all its forms. According to the ILO, incidence of child labour and its worst forms dropped by almost 40% between 2000 and 2016 as ratification rates increased and countries adopted laws and policies including those relating to minimum age to work. However, the organisation fears the COVID-19 pandemic could reverse years of gains especially as progress has slowed in recent years, particularly among children 5 to 11 years and in some geographical areas.
Since the ILO’s founding in 1919, ending child labour has been a core concern and is the focus of the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour and Forced Labour, one of the organisation's largest development cooperation programmes. Albert Thomas, the ILO’s first director, described child labour as the exploitation of childhood which constitutes the evil, most unbearable to the human heart, and said serious work in social legislation begins always with the protection of children.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a real risk that years of progress will be reversed, leading to a potential increase in child labour for the first time in 20 years unless appropriate action is taken. As 2021 is the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, the ILO plans to raise awareness of the issue to accelerate progress towards ending child labour by 2025.