06/12/2013 04:33 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

Skipping the First Step to End Child Labor?

Laws are not enough to end child labor -- we see that every time a new factory is found filled with children who should be in school. But making progress against child labor must begin with banning it. Laws set standards and norms, and affect what people see as acceptable. They establish the guidelines that many businesses willingly follow -- and exact penalties on the ones that do not. Without this legal groundwork, how can hazardous worksites filled with children be prevented from operating? How can those sending children to work in mines be penalized? How can civil society advocate for better implementation of child labor regulations?

Forty-six countries around the world do not prohibit children from performing hazardous work before the age of 18 -- not just labor, but labor which countries around the world have agreed "by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children." Among these, 16 countries do not protect children aged 15 or younger from doing hazardous work.

In dozens of the countries with legislation, exceptions to the laws allow children younger than the official minimum age to do hazardous work -- when taking these exceptions into account, the number of countries permitting hazardous work during childhood climbs to 83. Some common examples of exceptions are for educational, vocational, or training purposes (28 countries); for particular types of work, often agricultural (20 countries); or if working with family members (12 countries). But it is hard to see the educational value of hazardous child labor.

How do we know this, and why wasn't it known before? National labor legislation is no secret -- most countries make it available online through resources like the ILO's NATLEX repository. But finding the answer to a question even as simple as which countries permit hazardous work for children required reading through thousands of pages of legal text in multiple languages. Our team and colleagues at the World Policy Analysis Center undertook this herculean task, and spent many months reading, analyzing, and systematically translating this wealth of information into a framework that permits clear comparisons of child labor laws around the world, as well as many other laws and policies.

Child labor is often seen as a phenomenon very difficult to measure and monitor. More efforts need to be made to find illegal factories and monitor workplaces to ensure that no children are working. If we are going to reduce the worst forms of child labor, we also need to track and shine a light on whether countries are taking the first crucial step towards combating child labor: making it illegal.

This week, the world celebrates -- if celebrates is the right word -- the World Day Against Child Labor for the twelfth time. The idea that children should not be permitted to do work that is inherently harmful is difficult to contest -- indeed, 177 countries have ratified the International Labour Organization's Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999). Despite this widespread agreement, child labor continues to limit the life chances of hundreds of millions of children worldwide.

If it is taking this convention seriously, the UN should publish a map of which countries have failed to pass laws to make hazardous child labor illegal. Consumers should have a choice about where their goods originate from. People living within countries that have committed to ending child labor but have failed to take even the first step should have more tools to work for effective change.

Take a look at where countries are on laws regulating hazardous child labor, full-time work, work on school days, and night work. Join us in working to hold nations accountable for their action -- or inaction. Then we would really have something to celebrate.

For more information on the World Policy Analysis Center's findings and methods click here, and read our previous post on this topic here.

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