More than 40 academics have called the UN minimum working age for children “harmful and unnecessary”.
In a letter to The Observer, the senior academics said the minimum age, set at between 14 and 18 depending on circumstances, “makes a false premise that children are better protected if childhood is free from work”.
“Research has shown this can trigger worse living conditions, reduce education opportunities and push some children into more hazardous and exploitative work,” said the letter.
“That the Minimum Age Convention harms children is now so well established that several dozen researchers and practitioners specialising in child work formed an ad hoc expert group to provide the committee with advice and evidence, arguing that Convention 138 should be revoked or ignored and more effective policy should specifically target work that is dangerous or damaging to children.”
Under Convention 138 children should not be employed below the age of 15, or 14 for less developed countries. No one below the age of 18 should be employed in hazardous work.
“Monitoring mechanisms need to be in place to ensure children’s work at all ages benefits them and is not hazardous or exploitative and does not conflict with education,” said the letter.
“This can be done through the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Convention 138 is both harmful and unnecessary.”
Benyam Dawit Mezmur, the chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, told SM he questioned the evidence base of the group’s claims and said over the past 20 years there had been a 200% increase in the number of countries signing up to Convention 138, though the US has yet to ratify it.
“That tells us the document is generating momentum and states have woken up to the idea and it’s helping,” he said.
“Convention 138 includes a lot of exceptions – it allows children to do light work. We think some work is very useful for children.”
Mezmur said latest figures from 2012 showed globally there were 168m children involved in child labour, down on 245m in 2000, as countries adopted legislation and improved education. Of the total, 73m children are aged five to 11. While it is a global problem, Africa and Southeast Asia are hotspots.
He added: “Eliminating the minimum age will actually put children at a greater risk.”
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