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close this bookAction Against Child Labour (ILO, 2000, 356 p.)
close this folder7. Trade unions against child labour
close this folder7.1 WHY CHILD LABOUR IS A TRADE UNION ISSUE
View the documentThe history and role of trade union involvement

The history and role of trade union involvement

From the start, trade unions have worked for the prevention of child labour and the removal of children from the workplace, and for their placement in schools. The first International Workers' Congress in 1866 called for an international campaign against child labour and, with the establishment of the ILO) in 1919, the first Convention on minimum age for admission to industry was adopted. The fight against child labour has been part of the core mandate of the ILO since its inception and the labour movement has been identified as one of the key pressure groups for limiting child labour in the twentieth century.

The ILO's position is founded upon a range of international labour standards, the most important of which are the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138), and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 199 (No. 182). Convention No. 138 obliges ratifying States to undertake a national policy to ensure the abolition of child labour and to progressively raise the minimum age for admission to employment or work. It consolidates earlier instruments, and applies to all sectors of economic activity, whether or not the children are employed for wages. To complement the provisions of Convention No. 138 and to encourage the immediate suppression of the worst forms of child labour, the ILO member Stares adopted Convention No. 182 at the 1999 session of the International Labour Conference (see Chapter 2).

The development of protective legislation in the form of minimum age statutes, and the gradual introduction of compulsory education helped to reduce child labour in the now industrialized countries. Universal education was seen as a major factor in the development of a modern nation, and trade unions played an important part in lobbying for the transfer of children from the workplace to the classroom.

Box 7.1. Health and safety statistics from South Africa

"In 1991 in agriculture, 381 children under 16 were killed or injured at work, 50 per cent were temporarily disabled, 7 per cent were totally disabled and 1 per cent received fatal injury. Out of 3,730 children injured in the 16-20 age group, 3 per cent were permanently disabled and 0.4 per cent were killed. Children are more liable to suffer occupational injuries due to fatigue, poor judgement, insufficient knowledge of work processes and the fact that machinery and equipment are designed for adults."

(Department of Manpower, South Africa, Annual report 1991)

Involvement in action against child labour can also bring additional benefit to trade union organizations. Many unions have seen an increase in membership, and hitherto inactive or even dormant branches have been revitalized through these activities. Activities against child labour also bring trade unions into contact with workers in the sectors where they need better protection through unionization. For example, the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) found that the campaign against child labour in the slate-mining industry helped develop a new approach to trade union activity, by reaching the workers through their children A worker commented that the image and credibility of the union had "shot up" and that the enthusiasm generated by the campaign was shared with other trade unions.

Trade unions can contribute directly and indirectly to the elimination of child labour in a number of ways. Evidence shows that there is little child labour in organized industries, and this demonstrates to other parties the benefit of trade union organization in the workplace. In addition, trade unions:

· are well placed to undertake information-gathering and to participate in national surveys;

· are often strong players in child labour campaigns;

· can negotiate collective bargaining agreements and codes of conduct to protect workers and children; and

· are able to monitor ongoing workplace practices and ensure that agreements are not abused.


Trade unions have a history of campaigning, and considerable experience of appropriate strategies to raise awareness and bring about change International trade union organizations can assist trade unionists at national level and support their organizations and campaigns.

Trade unions can also work in partnership with other unions, NGOs and employers' organizations (see Chapters 6 and 9). At the same time, such joint action assists understanding of the specific role the trade union movement is playing in the eradication of child labour.

While trade union action against child labour is fast growing, it is also important to acknowledge the difficulties some trade unions face.

In some countries it is difficult for trade unions to be a major contributor to activities, as awareness-raising is only just beginning, and the members are not necessarily sympathetic to the need to eradicate child labour. In other cases, where there are strict regulations on organizing workers, many unions have a range of other problems to face.

In order to understand the relatively slow start of trade union action against child labour in Indonesia, Thailand, and Viet Nam, and to explore strategies to remove existing obstacles, 300 trade union leaders were surveyed. Sixty-four per cent indicated that the most relevant role for trade unions was to raise awareness, and 15 per cent felt that there should be a focus on lobbying. While all respondents agreed that child labour should be the concern of every trade unionist, technical and financial resources were not thought to be adequate to begin campaigns or take action. In each of these countries, the fast growth in the informal sector has also made it increasingly difficult for workers' organizations to organize along traditional patterns. Fundamental workers' rights to organize and to establish collective bargaining agreements have been restricted in free trade zones, and there has been an increase in subcontracting, homeworking, and piece-rate work.

Similar constraints are found in other countries. However, campaigning against child labour can help trade unions address these issues through effective liaison with and education of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), employers' organizations and governments. There is evidence that where strong trade unions exist, the occurrence of child labour is less likely.

The examples in the next section illustrate the growing activities of trade unions and how they can contribute to the elimination of child labour, even given the constraints they often face.

Box 7.2. Gold mining in Peru

"In Peru, action is limited since there is no national mine union, only a small union in the north east which does not have full-time representatives, so it is difficult for them to participate in meetings in the capital. It is also difficult to conduct surveys and take action due to the geographical conditions. There is very little union organisation, more and more children are going down the goldmines, there are almost no teachers in these areas and therefore few children have the opportunity to go to school."

(Anne Brown, International Federation of Chemical, Energy,
Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM))