On February 23, Saudi Arabia became the 167th country to ratify ILO Convention 138, setting the minimum age at which children in the country can work. The US must join the world community and ratify the convention.
(Washington) –The 31-member Child Labor Coalition (CLC) welcomes news that Saudi Arabia has become the 167th country to ratify Convention 138, setting a minimum age for work at 15, and it urges the US to ratify the convention as well. Drafted by the members of the International Labour Organization in 1973, Convention 138 asks nations to work to eliminate exploitive child labor and establish minimum ages at which children are allowed to work. Most countries have set those minimums at 15 or 16, with about one-third of nations adopting 14 as the age limit on a temporary basis. Convention 138 allows light work that is not harmful for children who are 13-15. In the US, however, children are allowed to perform strenuous labor for wages in agriculture beginning at the age of 12.
“The United States is dedicated to eliminating exploitive child labor around the world,” noted Sally Greenberg, co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition and executive director of the National Consumers League, which played a crucial role in eliminating many forms of child labor in the US in the 19th and early 20th century. “With 167 countries pledging minimum age restrictions for work at 14, 15, or 16, we need to join the international community and do the same. If Saudi Arabia can ratify protections for child workers, certainly the US should also do so. We must also adopt Convention 138’s prohibitions of harmful and dangerous work by those under 18.”
“Before the US can ratify Convention 138, it must close the loopholes in US child labor law that allow children to work for wages in agriculture at age 12,” noted Norma Flores Lopez, director of the Children in the Fields Campaign for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs and the chair of the CLC’s Domestic Issues Committee. “Farm work is particularly dangerous—with mortality rates four times that of other industries—yet we allow children who are 12 to perform back-breaking labor in the fields for unlimited hours when school is not in session.”
“As a former child migrant farmworker, I know the dangers children in the fields are exposed to—powerful machinery, razor-sharp tools, and pesticide poisoning—to name just a few,” added Flores Lopez. “Child labor has a huge impact on the farmworker community, creating rampant generational poverty as the rigors of the work, migration, and endless school disruptions cause children to tire and drop out of school. With millions of unemployed adults in America, why must we rely on young children to harvest our fruits and vegetables?”
“By continuing to keep children working in the fields, the US causes adult wages in agriculture to remain artificially low, making it nearly impossible for these families to invest in their children and break the cycle of poverty,” noted Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum and chair of the CLC’s International Issues Committee. “The US should take immediate steps to ratify international treaties like Convention 138 and the Convention on the Rights of the Children—both embraced nearly unanimously by United Nations members—that work to increase protections for children.”
“The elimination of child labor has been a goal of educators for many years,” added Dr. Lorretta Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers and a co-chair of the CLC. “Tackling the issue of child labor has gone hand-in-hand with our efforts to ensure that quality education is provided as a right to all children. Here and abroad, the elimination of child labor goes beyond education, and should also include policy changes that address societal poverty and inequality, as well the legal framework that ILO Convention 138 helps provide.”
About the Child Labor Coalition
The Child Labor Coalition represents consumers, labor unions, educators, human rights and labor rights groups, child advocacy groups, and religious and women’s groups. It was established in 1989, and is co-chaired by the National Consumers League and the American Federation of Teachers. Its mission is to protect working youth and to promote legislation, programs, and initiatives to end child labor exploitation in the United States and abroad. [The CLC’s website and membership list can be found at www.stopchildlabor.org ]
CLC Member Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch: Will the US Be the Last Country to Ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child?
As the children’s rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, one of the questions I’m asked most frequently is why the US has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Currently, only two other countries – South Sudan and Somalia – have yet to ratify the convention, the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history.
But the US is now in danger of becoming a club of one. Last Wednesday, South Sudan’s parliament voted to ratify the convention. The same day – the 24th anniversary of the convention – Somalia’s president pledged that his country would ratify it soon.
South Sudan and Somalia have some reasonable excuses for not having ratified the child rights convention more quickly. South Sudan gained independence only two years ago, and Somalia has struggled for more than two decades to establish a functioning government. The US has no such defense.
One of the biggest barriers to US ratification is an aggressive misinformation campaign by “parental rights” organizations, claiming that the convention will undermine American families. These groups have promoted ludicrous scenarios of what will happen if the US ratifies the convention, saying parents will be put in prison if they fail to vaccinate their child, that children will be forced to sing songs about the United Nations in school, and that children will have to begin mandatory sex education at the age of four. None of these claims are true.
In reality, the Convention on the Rights of the Child makes numerous references to the importance of the family. It outlines rights that virtually every American parent would want for their child – the right to education, to development, and to protection from exploitation and abuse. None of the predicted “nightmare” scenarios have come to pass in the 193 countries that have ratified the convention. Instead, the convention has helped governments assess and improve their laws and policies for children.
US ratification is complicated only by the continued practice in the United States of sentencing child offenders to life in prison with no possibility of parole. The US is the only country to impose this punishment, which the convention specifically prohibits. Until it ends such sentencing, which has been whittled away by the Supreme Court in recent years, the US could enter a reservation to the convention, as it has done when ratifying other human rights treaties.
It’s a shame that a campaign that is at best misguided has helped keep the US out of a treaty that has nearly universal acceptance. The White House and US Senate should give the convention another look before the US finds itself in a minority of one.
[Originally published November 26, 2013 at www.hrw.org]