Breaking chains, building a just future: The fight against child labour as a fight for democracy

Jun 2024

It has been decades since international norms and conventions to protect the rights of children, including from economic exploitation and hazardous work, have been adopted. And yet, child labour remains rampant in Asia and the Pacific region, especially in South Asia. Child labour is pervasive but invisible and a glaring problem but still ignored. In fact, SDG target 8.7 on eliminating child and forced labour are among the targets which have unmeasurable progress due to lack of available data.

Child labour in the Asia-Pacific is a blatant violation of human rights and a symptom of deeper systemic failures. Millions of children are forced into hazardous, precarious, and exploitative work, often in the informal economy where regulation is weak or non-existent. This exploitation is rooted in poverty and perpetuated by lack of access to children’s basic rights, including access to free and quality education.

The continued existence of child labour is happening against the backdrop of backsliding democracies in the region. It is undeniable that the failure of governments to eradicate child labour stems from the erosion of democratic values, of which respect for human and children’s rights is a fundamental tenet. Democratic governance is the bedrock of a just society, and without it, efforts to combat child labour and other forms of exploitation will continue to fall short.

Trade unions are critical in building and sustaining a healthy democracy. And while trade unions in the region face repression amidst the rise of authoritarianism and populism, they remain at the forefront of the battle against child labour, advocating for the rights of workers and their families. They have launched awareness campaigns, organised rescue missions, demanded for free and quality education and social protection for children, and advocated for stricter regulations and more effective enforcement of anti-child labour policies. They have also worked towards the ratification of relevant ILO Conventions such as the ILO Convention No. 138 on Minimum Age and ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour. These initiatives demonstrate that trade unions are not just fighting for better wages and conditions for the adult working population, but are also crucial allies in combatting child labour and protecting children from exploitation.

The fight against child labour is intrinsically linked to the fight for democracy, as both aim to protect human rights and promote social justice. Political leaders in Asia-Pacific must recognise that economic development cannot come at the expense of children and workers. This means enacting and enforcing laws that protect children and workers, dismantling authoritarian structures, and fostering genuine democratic practices that protects the rights of all, including children.

As a regional confederation representing various trade unions in Asia-Pacific, we reaffirm our commitment to eliminating child labour and fighting to ensure that decent work becomes reality for all adult and young workers in the region. We assert the crucial role of trade unions in safeguarding and advancing workers’ rights and ensuring that the voices of the most vulnerable are heard. We call for urgent actions to eradicate child labour in line with ILO Conventions, international human rights laws, and the Durban Call to Action.

Together, we will continue our struggle to break the chains of children’s exploitation and build a just and equitable future for them. By fighting child labour, we strengthen our democracies, uphold human dignity, and build a world where every child can thrive and every worker’s rights are upheld.

Shoya Yoshida
General Secretary
ITUC-Asia Pacific