Par : Édith Gaudreau-Lebel
By modern standards, child labour has become a complex issue since the industrialisation of the marketplace and the consequent removal of the child from a more controlled domestic environment. Although some standardization has been put in place by international instruments such as the ILO and the CRC, especially regarding the legal minimum age and the maximum number of hours that a child can work depending of his/her age, there seems to be a constant tension between the protection and participation principle of the rights of the child. Indeed, while the human rights framework advocates for the right of the child to be “protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education”, the marketplace continues to promote a capitalist system that encourages the “adultization” of children, mainly towards economic autonomy for them or their family (OHCHR, 2017).
This aforementioned tension can also be viewed from the more concrete perspective of the participation principle and the notion of agency, which is a crucial part of the rights of the child. It may seem like in the case of child labour we are restricting that agency by imposing a certain age for work, but the capabilities approach brings another dimension to this complex issue by promoting the rights of children based on their vulnerability and need for care, but also on the necessity for them to develop and enjoy their own capabilities.
Dixon and Nussbaum (2012, 565) emphasize the importance for children to be protected against exploitative labour, “to promote the long-term development of [their] relevant capabilities”. As mentioned by Dahlén (2008, 6), the minimal age policy regarding work was usually linked to the school-leaving age, thus securing a certain level of education for all children and admitting to the importance of a level of maturity for certain kind of work. These provisions acknowledge the special status of children and promote the physical and mental conditions required for safe development through access to various other rights, such as, rest and leisure, education, and culture.
While the concept of “protecting children to create better equipped citizens” seems ideal on paper, questions remain regarding the most impoverished children: how can we ensure that the rights of the child in the marketplace are respected without worsening the socio-economic conditions of the child and his/her family living in poverty? Why is the child working in unsuitable situations in the first place? If the child is not forced to work directly, but feels the necessity to do so in order to fulfill his/her family’s needs, should we not be questioning the system that is perpetuating such an unjust dilemma? From a globalization perspective, the responsibility to stop these unethical practices ultimately falls back to the consumers. While the concept of corporate social responsibilities is more and more recognised, the economic infrastructure of our capitalist system is such that production and profits always stay the priorities, unless the consumers can create enough market pressures to destabilize the common practices and thus install a more humane system that takes into account the socio-economic and environmental impacts of consumerism. As portrayed within the capabilities approach, the long-term perspective is the most profitable from a society point of view since it gives everyone the opportunity to grow around “certain central capabilities”, which recognises the primacy of human dignity (Dixon and Nussbaum 2012, 549).
Dahlén, M. (2008). The ILO and Child Labour. International Institute for Labour Studies. 1-40.
Dixon, R., Nussbaum, M.C. (2012). Children’s Rights and a Capabilities Approach: the Question of Special Priority. Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper, Vol.97 (384), 549-597.
OHCHR. (2017). Convention on the Rights of the Child: Article 32. Retrieved from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CRC.aspx