Strengthening the fight against child labour

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Children are the future, and it is our responsibility to ensure their safety and well-being by enabling them to grow and develop in a nurturing environment. The sad reality is that many children across the world face a daunting prospect of being drawn into work at a young age often under harmful conditions.

South Africa values the rights of children and has over the past 30 years sought to protect them from harm and promote their development. Protecting children from violence, exploitation and abuse is not only a basic right but an obligation set out in our Constitution.

This is in conjunction with other legislation such as the Children's Act and Basic Conditions of Employment Act which makes it a criminal offence to employ a child younger than 15 or children who are of school going age. The Children's Act also discourages children from working in mines, factories or in hazardous occupations.

In June, South Africa joined the international community in observing the World Day against Child Labour, under the theme: “Let’s Act on Our Commitments: End Child Labour”. The key commitments to end child labour are contained in the Durban Call to Action – a document adopted by various Member States, including South Africa at the 5th Global Conference on Ending Child Labour that was hosted in Durban in May 2022.  The document outlines strong commitments to end child labour through making decent work a reality, ending child labour in agriculture, strengthening the prevention and elimination efforts, realising children's rights to education, achieving universal access to social protection, and increasing financing as well as international cooperation. It is in this regard that this year’s commemoration raised awareness against child labour practices across the world and promoted initiatives to help put an end to this scourge.

In marking the day on 12 June 2024, our country reaffirmed its commitment in the fight against child labour. The day also coincided with the 25th Anniversary of the Adoption of the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention which sets out to protect children against all forms of child labour. It also aims to prevent the use of children in armed conflict, prostitution, pornography, drug trafficking and participating in hazardous work.

The commemorations gave us an opportunity to reflect on the progress made as well as reaffirm our commitments to put an end to child labour. Despite the significant strides made over time to reduce child labour across the world, much still need to be done to fully eradicate the practice of child labour.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), child labour has for the first time in 20 years increased globally. It is noted that the agricultural sectors such as farming, fishing, aquaculture, forestry and livestock farming account for 60 percent of child labourers aged five to 17 years.

In our fight against this plight, South Africa has endorsed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1995 and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child in 2000 to affirm its commitment to the realisation of children’s rights.

In addition, the Department of Employment and Labour in collaboration with the International Labour Organisation launched the Prevention and Elimination of Child Labour in South Africa project to prevent and eliminate any forms of child labour in the agricultural sector in the country. The project is being piloted in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Delivering the keynote address at the launch, former Minister of Employment and Labour Thulas Nxesi expressed concern on the increase of child labour in the agricultural sector.

He said: “The agricultural sector is the backbone of our economy, providing food security and sustenance, as well as livelihood to millions. Yet, it is disheartening to note that some of the very hands that cultivate the crops and tend to the livestock belong to children who should be in schools, not in the fields. This situation is unacceptable and demands our immediate attention and concerted efforts.”

Despite our best efforts to protect children from abuse, neglect and exploitation, many children remain vulnerable. Tackling the scourge of child labour requires interventions on many fronts, and it is a reality that government on its own cannot curb.  As such, businesses have a responsibility to the elimination of child labour by carrying out due diligence in their operations and supply chains and ensuring responsible and sustainable business practices that address the root causes of child labour.

Let us all work together to prevent and eliminate child labour by reporting such acts of crime to the Department of Employment and Labour, or alternatively to the police. 

*Khethani Hlongwa is Director: Office on the Rights of the Child; Department of Social Development