The Five Fundamental Labour Rights

Exploration of the ILO fundamental labour rights - part 2: Child Labour

As introduced in our previous blog, this series will explore the Fundamental Labour Rights that were recognized as such by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in the Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The Five Fundamental Labour Rights are the abolition of Child Labour, the elimination of Forced Labour, the right to Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining, the elimination of Discrimination and Occupational Health and Safety. In each blog, we will dissect one of these rights and determine their relevance using current data. In this part, we will focus on Child Labour. 

The ILO defines Child Labour as work that harms children’s mental and physical health and deprives them of their childhood. What kind of work this entails is outlined by the ILO as work that poses mental, physical, social or moral dangers to children and/or work that interferes with their schooling. Whether a specific type of work qualifies as “Child Labour” depends on factors such as the child’s age, the type and duration of the labour, the working conditions and the country the labour takes place in.

The ILO has adopted two fundamental conventions dedicated to Child Labour. These conventions are the ILO Convention No. 138 on Minimum Age and the ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour. As these two conventions have received the prominence of “fundamental conventions”, they enjoy additional protection. This protection means that these conventions must be obliged by all ILO member states, regardless of their ratification status. The purpose of both of these conventions will be discussed briefly.

The ILO Convention No. 138 on Minimum Age was adopted by the ILO in 1973. This convention aims to urge the member states to raise the minimum working age to the age of 15 for general work. This means that children are required to attend school until they are at least 15. Children under 18 but over 15 years old are still under age and thus deserve extra protection when working. This is why the convention also determines that the minimum age for hazardous work is 18. Hazardous work consists of labour that will threaten health, safety or morals. 

The ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour was adopted by the ILO in 1999. The main purpose of this convention is the prohibition and abolition of the worst forms of Child Labour for anyone under the age of 18 years old. Article 3 of this convention names these worst forms, which are: all forms of slavery (such as forced labour and human trafficking), prostitution and pornography, armed conflict and drug trafficking. Additionally, this convention endorses Convention No. 138 by referring to the prohibition of hazardous work under the age of 18. 

Although the core labour standards hold a special position (see above), a few comments on ratification and the ratification rate of C.138 and 182. A member state has to ratify a convention to be bound to its standards. After this ratification, the member state has to give effect to the standards of the specific convention and apply them into practice by incorporating them into national law. This is why the ILO keeps a record of the ratification rate of each convention. The ILO Convention No. 138 on Minimum Age has been ratified by 176 member states, while 11 countries have not (yet) ratified this convention. The ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour is significant, since it is the first and only convention that has been ratified by all member states.

For example the United States of America have not ratified ILO Convention No. 138. However, since the convention is a fundamental convention, the USA must still oblige to its standards. The question is whether the USA actually does. An investigation has been started by the USA Labour Department after the accusation that migrant children work overnight shifts cleaning slaughterhouses in spite of federal laws prohibiting children to work in this work environment. This might be a violation of the ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour if it is determined that these working conditions threaten the children’s mental or physical health. 

Since 160 million children are still engaged in Child Labour, of which 79 million are performing hazardous work, it is clear that child labour is still an issue that needs active attention, from the ILO and governments and businesses involved.


den haag