European Union and national regulations on child labour

European Union and national regulations on child labour

Let me take you on a journey to Muridke, a small town in Pakistan, where little children as young as five years were crammed together, squatting in front of a loom working with their tiny fingers six days a week, for at least 14 hours a day. They could not talk to each other, otherwise they would get punished. Punishments were a common occurrence and varied from being hung upside down to severe beatings or even being chained to their loom.

For all this they were paid close to nothing because they were debt slaves - children forced to work to repay their parents' debts.

This is a carpet factory. One day, one of the little boys in that carpet factory runs away and goes to a meeting of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) and with their help he got free because debt slavery is illegal in Pakistan - the problem is they do not seem to enforce it.

That little boy was able to go to school where he became involved in the fight against bonded child labour. However, the carpet factory owners started threatening the little boy to return to work, otherwise they would kill him. They even threatened his mother and younger sister. With the help of BLLF he was flown to Sweden and the US and, in December 1994, in the US he was awarded the Reebok Human Rights Award for having fought for the rights of debt slave children.

However, one Easter Day, on April 16, 1995, while riding a bicycle with two relatives back home, the little boy, who was then only 12 years old, was gunned down. He was hit by 120 shotgun pellets. That little boy's name was Iqbal Masih. And this is a true story.

You might say: But that does not happen in Europe! This is untrue. The United Nations estimates that 1.5 million children under 16 are trafficked worldwide each year. They are being sold by their relatives from developing countries such as African, Far Eastern and Eastern European countries and are forced to work in developed countries such as Britain, Germany, Italy and Austria. The "work" these children are forced to do range from pick pocketing to prostitution to spending long hours in restaurants or in sweatshops.

The Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 1999 defines the worst forms of child labour as "(a) All forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict; (b) the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances; (c) the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs; and (d) work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children".

This is an encompassing definition, which extends the meaning of child labour to include prostitution and drug trafficking and also any work that might not be illegal but still poses a hazard to children.

The European Social Charter states that the minimum age of employment shall be of 15 years with the exception of "light work without harm to their health, morals or education". Therefore, a child cannot skip school to "help" in the family business and cannot "help" in the family business for long hours thus harming the child's health. No work can be done by a child which corrupts or endangers his morals.

Malta's Young Persons (Employment) Regulations state that work by children is prohibited and the minimum age for employment shall be the age at which compulsory schooling ends, that is at 16 years. However, children can do occasional or short-term work involving the domestic service in a private household or in the family business without it being harmful, damaging or dangerous to the child. Domestic service should be differentiated from domestic slavery, which is prevalent in Europe where children are forced to work with no financial reward and are in fact kept prisoners by their "employers".

Children should not be economically exploited or forced into child labour. According to the regulations mentioned above, they are only permitted to work if such work does not interfere with the child's education and does not pose a threat to his/her morals or health. And, according to the Palermo Protocol, children should consent voluntarily to such work.

The author is a lawyer and a published author with a special interest in family law and child law.

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