The Fading Future of the ILO: A Look at the Child Labor Issue in India

The Fading Future of the ILO: A look at the Child Labor Issue in India

 Note: I spent all day today writing this paper for my Labor and Human Rights class at the University of Washington. Once again, I am humbled by the information I have learned and the stories that I have read. I hope that this essay touches your heart in a way that you are never the same. 

          The International Labor Organization (ILO) was established in 1919, in the rouse of World War I, as a response to worldwide labor standards. In 1969, the ILO received the Nobel Peace Prize for its work and efforts to standardize labor conditions across the globe. While the ILO’s past possesses an honorable reputation that speaks for itself, critiques suggest the ILO’s future looks less than promising. In particular, Guy Standing’s critique describes the ILO as relatively ineffective in progressing a meaningful labor rights framework under current global conditions. This paper will prove Standing’s analysis as an accurate assessment drawing from evidence of the ILO’s lack of success in advancing labor rights in India.

          The ILO, beginning as and continuing as a mainly European organization, stands as a model for national welfare capitalism. A bottom line support for tripartism, the organizing of collective bargaining at national and sector levels, gave the ILO a stigma of leading power for many years conducting the forward march of the working class. Karl Polanyi describes the ILO as a critical phase in the Great Transformation, which refers to the ongoing Global transformation in the creation of international markets. In this context, the ILO is tool by which national labor markets are shaped and regulated.

          Guy Standing, in Development and Change, points out the ILO’s three most pivotal moments throughout history: the issuing of the “Philidelphia Declaration” in 1944, Nobel Peace Prize win in 1969, and the 1998 “Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights At Work” reconstitution. Despite such accomplishments, recent years suggest the decline of the ILO as an effective developmental agency. The ILO remains a questionably inappropriate apparatus for responding to the unpredictable phases of Global Transformation. Here, Standing’s argument begins as an attack to the ILO’s voluntarist framework, falling out during the 1970s and 1980s, engagement from equality to equity, and de-professionalization of staff and management in support of his concluding argument that the ILO will not serve as a beacon of labor rights progression in the current wake of globalization.

          One underlying critique of the ILO is that it is unable to enforce the global labor standards that it defines. As a developmental agency, the ILO designs standards for national systems of regulation. The ILO operates under a voluntarist framework functioning by the ratification of Conventions and/or Recommendations that serve as labor rights guidelines. Countries that commit to such Conventions bind themselves to regular ILO regulation and investigation if such Conventions are believed to be broken. However, the ILO’s voluntarist structure allows governments “to ratify those Conventions they liked, not ratify those they have not liked, and ‘deratify’ those they have come to dislike.” Loose wording allows governments of diverse orientation to comply with the Conventions or argue that they do. As a result, the enforcement of the ILO as a recognized international organization is weakened.

          Although Convention setting hastened during the 1940s, the subsequent years of the 1970s and 1980s damaged the credibility and intellectuality of the ILO. When the U.S. suspended its membership with the ILO in 1975, the ILO also lost the U.S. contribution for a quarter of their yearly budget. The U.S. membership suspension based upon the ILO’s erosion of tripartite representation, selective concern for human rights, disregard for due process, and politicizing of the organization was ultimately beneficial for the U.S. Administration but waned the ILO’s credibility to deal fairly and equally. As the 1970s and 1980s went on, the ILO also lost intellectual integrity. Globalization forced the World Bank to rethink structural strategy and stray away from protective regulations and towards pro-market substitutions leaving the ILO in a difficult position to either side with or fight against the Bank’s new position on labor and social policies. Of the many labor market regulations instituted around the globe, the ILO was nearly unseen in contribution. The ILO’s choice to not respond to the Bank’s policy strategy along with a number of other choices resulted in a bereavement of ILO influence in international debates.

          Globalization continues to affect ILO strategies. While the ILO once redressed international structural inequality, globalization has encouraged the ILO to now promote employment equity. The ILO Administration, under pressure, shifted practices and strategies toward the wants of the employers influencing the idea of ‘decent work,’ which now overlooks all of ILO’s proclamations. ILO representatives have legitimized the term ‘decent work’ to their advantage while, once again, not addressing the role the ILO can play in this ideological conversation. The weight of this, then, largely depends on the ILO staff and management. ILO staff, in order to enforce rights, must have the capacity to develop and operate relevant rights policies. However, the ILO has politicized so much in the past decade that there are now gaps of expertise in many areas. This politicization majorly effected the ILO’s professional reputation, capability and capacity to lead the world towards a labor rights progression.

          The above actions or inaction to respond to globalization currents has induced a strong belief that the ILO will fade as an international body of progression for labor rights as argued by Guy Standing. Standing’s assessment is seemingly accurate in history and structural analysis. Additionally, his assessment proves evidentially accurate in a case study of the ILO’s lack of success to advance labor rights in India, particularly for child laborers.

          Globalization and the Global transformation have unfortunately had an inconclusive impact on child labor. With the growing international market economy, capitalists and firms across the world are utilizing mobilization to other countries in turning a larger profit and/or less expensive labor expenditures. This has resulted in an increased number of child laborers who are seen as a commodity exploited for capitalistic reasons. The child labor problem has been an international issue since the 1860s, but heightened awareness the last couple of decades has spawned a worldwide movement against child labor as recently as the 1980s. In 1992, the ILO implemented its first program against child labor called IPEC (International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor). The IPEC program today is the largest technical cooperation program in the ILO. IPEC’s annual budget is some $60 million with a staff of nearly 90% of all field-personnel. The ILO has obviously prioritized the fight against child labor at the top of its agenda simultaneously placing itself at the forefront of the worldwide movement.

          According to estimates conducted in Child labor In India, India has an approximate child population of 375 million today; approximately 250 million of these children are non-school-goers. “The question that naturally arises is: ‘What do they do? Where do they go? Do they merely stay at home and do nothing?’’ Of this number, studies show that between 60-115 million children not in school “toil as virtual slaves” trapped in some form of bonded labor. The situational disadvantage that many Indian families are forced into happens to be much more intense than they can cope with. As victims of generations of abandonment, discrimination, and dispossession, the belief that there is no alternative motivates parents to sell their children’s labor in order to survive. India’s notorious exploitation of child labor makes them a target country for labor and human rights in the global fight to end child labor.

          Although a number of India’s industries use child laborers including beedi, carpet, and diamond industries as well as the manufacturing of matches, fireworks and explosives, the remainer of this paper will examine the silk industry for fine detail of labor rights exploitation. According to a report by Human Rights Watch in 2003, the Indian silk industry has over 350,000 child laborers bonded by their employers. Beginning at age five, the children work twelve plus hour days and six and half to seven day workweeks in conditions of poor workplace safety, physical abuse, and verbal abuse. The children earn nothing to around Rs. 400 (U.S.$8.33) a month, some or all of which is deducted against loans of Rs. 1,000-10,000 (U.S.$21-$208).

          Workplace safety is a consistent problem in the silk industry. Silk thread is transformed from mature cocoons through a reeling and twisting process. In this process, the children suffer from a number of injuries from fumes, machinery, sharp threads, boiling water, and dead worms. Also worth noting, girls face particular physical injuries from sexual abuse by employers. Crowded work environments, like those of the silk industry, encourages the spread of contagious diseases as well as strains to vision, hearing, breathing and proper healing.

          A number of children working in the silk industry have reported several cases of physical and verbal abuse from employers. One nine-year-old girl told Human Rights Watch in an interview, “At work the supervisor used to… tie me up and beat me with a belt on my back. He did this two or three times… He tied a chain that was attached to the wall to my leg.” Other children also told their stories of being beaten or sought after by their employers if they were too sick to come to work. Abuse occurs when the children made mistakes, were sick, didn’t come to work, or for any other reason the employer saw fit.

          So where does the ILO fit into all of this? India was the first country to join the IPEC program in 1992. As well, India has ratified several ILO Conventions abolishing child labor and prohibiting bonded labor including Conventions 138, 182 and 29. Unfortunately, child labor and bondage have yet to cease and or even significantly decrease. Although Indian government bodies and NGO’s have increased awareness of India’s child labor problem, “most government promises [have] not materialized.” Limited efforts are being exerted to enforce child labor laws adopted by the Indian government as well as the ILO Conventions that were ratified. India has also adopted a number of international treaties relevant to child labor and protection of children of which can then be assumed that the India’s agenda to abolish child labor is a critically important one. However, there is much less to be seen on the practice and policy side of it all than there is ratified laws and Conventions.

          There are several other evidentiary reasons why the ILO has not effectively advanced labor rights in India supporting Guy Standing’s argument. First, the Indian government has become dismissive in their binding agreements with the ILO Conventions for which the country has ratified. Unfortunately, ILO loose wording and voluntarist framework allows for countries like India to fall indifferent to the regulations without major consequence. Secondly, the U.S. membership suspension in the 1970s cut funding for ILO programs affecting ILO operations. The ILO then began looking to the World Bank as a prospective funder. Although the World Bank began paying greater attention to child labor in recent years, child labor issues in India are on the “backburner” of the Bank’s funding concerns. As a result, the ILO may not even have the finances to increase advocacy and regulation in India.

          Also, the ILO’s focus transition from equality to equity and the increasing promotion of ‘decent work’ has not worked in favor of child laborers but rather the employers and capitalists who exploit child workers. This, combined with the politicizing of the ILO internal management, creates the greatest problem in advancing labor rights in India- political will. “Without protection and support from the government, bonded children cannot [escape bondage].” It is therefore the responsibility of the Indian government and domestic NGO’s to protect children’s rights, particularly the right to education. The ILO, mostly seen in terms of its Geneva base, has an extensive field structure with country offices around the world. But due to the de-professionalization of the ILO staff, “these offices almost invariably lack a critical mass of expertise on any subject.” The result is marginal standard setting by the ILO, the effect of which can be clearly seen in India.

          The ILO, for these reasons, has little hope to serve as an effective international body for labor rights in the future of Global Transformation. Much of the Indian government’s response to the child labor issue has been similar to the ILO’s response to globalization, unproductive and less than contributing towards a solution. Along with a lack of political will, India faces short-term euphoria for labor rights advancement without long-term consistency and stability. In these euphoric moments, urgency and seriousness of concern are short lived. Like Standing, I believe the world is a better place because of the ILO’s efforts. But the future of the ILO is stark and bleak and they will hardly stand at the frontlines of labor rights progression in the years to come.

Sources Used:

  • Alec Fyfe. The Worldwide Movement Against Child Labour. International Labour Organization. International Labour Office, Geneva, 2007.
  • Guy Standing, Development and Change, 39 (3). Institute of Social Studies 2008. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.
  • Lakshmidhar Mishra, Child Labor In India. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Small Change: Bonded Labor in India’s Silk Industry, Vol. 15, No. 2, Human Rights Watch 2003. 
  • Ratification Status of the ILO Core Labor Standards graph 
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