All 187 member states of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have ratified the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, 1999 (No 182) concerning the prohibition and immediate actions for the elimination of child labour.
This is a unique moment for the ILO and it certainly added additional festivity to the 100th anniversary of the foundation of this globally well-regarded organisation which has continuously been working for the protection of rights and well-beings of millions of workers around the world. This news comes just months before the start of the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour in 2021, which aims to raise awareness of the issue and to help accelerate the pace of progress in the elimination of child labour.
This important convention concerning labour law with special focus on children has achieved universal ratification, following ratification by the Kingdom of Tonga on August 4, 2020. However, it took 21 years since the convention was adopted by the International Labour Conference. What is worth noting is that for the first time in the ILO's history, an international labour convention has been ratified by all member states.
This convention calls for the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including slavery, forced labour and trafficking. It also prohibits the use of children in armed conflict, prostitution, pornography, and illicit activities such as drug trafficking, and in hazardous workplaces.
It is one of the ILO's eight fundamental conventions which covers the abolition of child labour, the elimination of forced labour, the abolition of work-related discrimination, and the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. These principles are also covered by the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998).
According to the statements issued from ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, this universal ratification reflects a global commitment that the worst forms of child labour, such as slavery, sexual exploitation, the use of children in armed conflict or other illicit or hazardous work that compromises children's health, and morals or psychological wellbeing have no place in the society and such ills need to be eliminated.
Child labour is a grievous violation of fundamental rights, and it is immensely important for the ILO and the international community to ensure that this convention is fully implemented. Ratification does not mean fulfilment of objectives and spirits of this convention. But the universal ratification of convention no 182 demonstrates the will of all member states to ensure that every child everywhere in the planet is free from child labour of its worst forms.
Since the ILO's founding in 1919, child labour has been a core concern of it. According to the study of the ILO, the incidence of child labour and its worst forms dropped by almost 40% between 2000 and 2016, as ratification rates of convention no 182 and convention no 138 (on minimum age to work) increased. It is worthy to mention here that among the ILO's eight fundamental rights conventions, the convention no 182 and convention no 138 are considered conventions pertaining to the "Child Labour" and the ILO is the custodian, which means it is responsible for compliance and implementation of these conventions.
Child labour is no more a domestic issue. It has an international dimension. Every year, many children are migrating for exploitation such as trafficked children. According to the latest UNODC report, published in 2018, on trafficking in persons, 30% of the trafficking victims are children; of them, 23% are girls.
The UNODC also found that most smuggled migrants are relatively young men. That is not to say that children are not being smuggled. Many smuggling flows also include some unaccompanied or separated children, who might be particularly vulnerable to deception and abuse by smugglers and others.
The increasing number of unaccompanied and separated children among smuggled migrants on some routes poses great challenges to children's rights and wellbeing. Other cohorts of children migrate merely for their survival, such as children of refugees and asylum seekers.
Unfortunately, we observe a very poor record in ratification of conventions relevant to migrant workers which essentially include child migrants. For example, there are two specific legally binding ILO instruments protecting migrant workers: Migration for Employment convention (ILO convention no 97) and the convention concerning Migrants in Abusive Conditions and the Promotion of Equality of Opportunity and Treatment of Migrant Workers (ILO convention no 143).
These conventions are concerned not only with the protection in the destination countries, but with the whole migration process from departure to return. Member states have found it difficult to ratify these conventions relevant to the protection of migrant workers. Regrettably, as of August 2020, only 50 and 25 member states have ratified ILO conventions no 97 and 143 respectively.
Although the ratification of these two core conventions is very low, many believe that conventions no 97 and 143 provided inspiration for the adaptation of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW). Again, the ICRMW is not widely ratified; so far, only 68 countries including Bangladesh have ratified this convention.
Among the ratifying countries, there are a few from the major destination countries. It means these three international instruments specifically protecting migrant workers have not been widely ratified in comparison to the fundamental international labour standards and core human rights instruments. The continued reluctance of many member states to agree to ratify legally binding multilateral instruments regulating international labour migration and protecting the rights of migrant workers remains a major concern for the international community.
There are many reasons for the migrant receiving states not to ratify these conventions. Many believe that the obstacles are both practical and political. On the practical side, these conventions are extensive and complex in nature, raising technical questions as well as financial obligations on state parties. On the political level, the conventions raise basic questions about state sovereignty, particularly regarding the capacity of states to deter irregular migration.
Even though the conventions require states parties to cooperate in curbing irregular migration and returning those without authorisation to remain in a destination state, many receiving countries are concerned that the rights granted to irregular migrants will hinder their ability to control such movements.
In addition, some states see no need to ratify the conventions, arguing that other human rights instruments already provide protection of the most fundamental rights outlined in these conventions. Or, as they want to argue, national laws provide adequate protection for the migrants.
According to observers, such arguments undermine the essence of adopting international conventions related to the protection of the rights and well-being of migrant workers and their family members. Merely adopting conventions have little meaning unless these are duly ratified and implemented by all the member states, especially the migrant receiving countries.