Basic Education, Child Labour
and the European Union

Challenging the Conventional Wisdom

In the firm belief that every child has the right to full-time quality education, the campaign "Stop Child Labour - School is the best place to work" argues for the coordination and integration of European Union policies in the areas of education and child labour in developing countries. The European Union recognises that education is a key aspect of poverty eradication and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)(1). As an intrinsic part of a policy to achieve education for all, it is imperative that more attention be given to the significance of helping working children enter full-time formal education, and hence to abolish child labour.

The Challenge

According to the latest estimates there are still around 246 million children working in the world today(2). At the same time a stunning 113 million children of primary school age never went to school(3) while an even larger number drops out before they reach fourteen years of age. Although they are often treated as such, these are not separate problems. Child labour prevents children from fully enjoying the benefits of education whilst full-time education is one of the key means to reduce and eliminate child labour. Inventive strategies therefore need to be identified that recognise these inter-linkages, and use them to reinstate to these millions of children their right to a childhood free from exploitation.

The United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child, ratified by nearly all the members of the UN, clearly recognises education as a fundamental right (article 28) and binds states to protect children from economic exploitation and from any work "that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development" (article 32).

The international community has continuously emphasized the crucial role education has to play in both social and economic development. One of the first occasions was the World Conference on Education in Jomtien (1990) when 150 governments promised Education for All by 2000. Following the clear failure to reach this goal, world leaders met again at Dakar in April 2000, where 185 governments pledged themselves to the achievement of Education for All by 2015 and gender equity by 2005; which respectively constitute Goals 2 and 3 of the Millennium Development Goals.

However, if present trends continue these targets will be comprehensively missed.

The ILO has recognised that efforts to achieve Education for All are in fact crucially tied to the eradication of child labour. In the 2003 document 'Combating child labour through education' of the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) it is stated that ''for the goal of universal primary education to be reached by 2015, governments will not only need have to accelerate efforts to achieve EFA (education for All), but also to step up efforts to eliminate child labour, which should be an integral part of education policies.'' This idea has already been enshrined in the two major legal instruments of the ILO that deal with child labour. The Minimum Age Convention 138 of 1973, which has now been ratified by 131 states, declares that the minimum age for entry into employment "shall not be less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case shall not be less than 15 years" and 14 years in the case of an underdeveloped economy. In addition, the recent Convention 182 on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour states that "the effective elimination of the worst forms of child labour requires immediate and comprehensive action, taking into account the importance of free basic education".

Following widespread criticism on the lack of progress of EFA, a Discussion Panel entitled "From Exploitation to Education for the Children Left Behind: The Role of the International Community in Achieving Education for All" was held in New Delhi in November 2003. At this event 60 representatives of the major agencies that work on the twin issues, as well as members of relevant government ministries from a number of developed and developing countries, came together to highlight the importance of integrating child labour into EFA efforts and called for more coordinated action in these fields. The EU also attended this conference. While this provided a positive and important first step, further clarity is required concerning the predominant focus of the conference communiqué on children in hazardous work rather than on the need to integrate all working and other out-of-school children into the formal education system.(4)

Discussion on the right to education has, in fact, often been held without consideration of the fact that child labour is a huge obstacle to the realisation of this right. Building schools and improving quality, while important, is not enough. An active approach is needed that strongly links the eradication of child labour to the provision of full-time education. The lack of such a vision has often been based on the assumption that the right to education clashes with the right to survival. This stems from the presumption that it is impossible for working children to follow full-time education due to poverty. Child labour is seen as a "necessary evil", at least in the short run, and as a consequence policies aimed at the elimination of the worst forms of child labour are given priority while other children are provided with part-time educational solutions. Non-formal education systems are usually of short duration, and undermine long-term investment in strengthening permanent full-time educational structures. Moreover, without a strategy to include all out-of-school children, one group of child labourers is simply replaced by another leading to a perpetuation of the problem. Such an approach does not provide a sustainable solution to child labour and conveys a message that child labour is acceptable for some children but not for others.

The position of the campaign

Through years of close contact with child labour and basic education in the South, the campaign "Stop Child Labour - School is the best place to work" has come to the conclusion that poverty does not have to act as an impediment to the realisation of the right to education for every child. Our partner organisation in India, the MV Foundation, has instead identified other key factors, such as the accessibility of the education system, illiteracy of the parents, insensitivity of the administration as well as existing social norms, to be the driving force behind the decision to send children to work and not to school. Focusing on these issues in their endeavour to abolish all child labour in the here and now, the MV Foundation asks not why these children are working but what do we need to do to get them to school.

MV Foundation

The MV Foundation was established in 1981 in Hyderabad, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India, as a research institution on issues relating to social transformation. It began working on the issue of child labour in the early 1990s and currently focuses on the twin issues of of abolishing child labour and universalising education.

Uncompromising in its belief that no child should have to work and that all children must be given the right to education, the MV Foundation has developed a comprehensive strategy to do just that. Over the years its programmes, which involve the highest possible degree of participation by the local community and centre around the concept of bridge-schools to help children catch up with missed schoolwork, have spread from just a few mandals in the Ranga Reddy district to cover over 4000 habitations in eight districts. The organisation has successfully mainstreamed over 260 000 children into the formal education system.

The campaign "Stop Child Labour - School is the best place to work" believes that mainstreaming children into full time formal schools is the only sustainable way to keep them out of child labour and to ensure a child's right to education is trully fulfilled. In this sense it is crucial to recognise that the responsibilty for education ultimately lies with the state. The campaign therefore does not support the setting up of parallel structures and believes that non-formal education is only effective in so far as it is temporary and used to help child labourers into the formal school system.

The campaign believes that, within the context that all out-of-school children should be in school, a direct approach to address girl's labour and bring them into formal education is absolutely necessary. The work of girls is especially invisible and contributes to a large gender-gap on education today. An important problem is that working in one's own home, or even in somebody else's household, is often not acknowledged as child labour. For this reason, policies that focus exclusively on children working in hazardous industries are particularly weak at addressing the issue of girl child labour.

MVF strongly maintains that all children out of school are vulnerable to exploitation. It is the organisation's experience that all non-school going children will eventually be integrated into some form of child labour. It is for this reason that MVF explicitly targets all out of school children without distinction of gender, caste, religion or ethnic origin.

In accordance with the ILO Convention 138, the campaign "Stop Child Labour - School is the best place to work" defines child labour as all forms of work done by children under 14 years of age, that prevents the child from attending full-time formal education and/or that is harmful to the physical and mental, health and development of a child. The campaign does not object to light work that may be done by children in after school hours or at weekends which can contribute to the development of responsibility and independence of a young person, as long as such activities are limited to a few hours and leave the child enough free time to rest and enjoy his or her childhood.

The Economic Argument

It is undeniable that poverty contributes to the decision of a parent to send his or her child to work. But does this mean that poverty is the main reason why children are working and that while it persists children must continue to work? The campaign believes that that the answer to both these questions is an emphatic no.

Numerous studies have in fact shown that there is not a direct and linear causal relationship between poverty and child labour. In Andhra Pradesh research supported by the MVF found that in a number of villages the household income of families of child labourers was not different from that of the families whose children were attending school. Similarly a World Bank/ Save the Children study in Burkina Faso found that the highest numbers of child labourers were not necessarily to be found in the poorest regions.

Having rejected poverty as the main determinant of child labour, years of experience have in fact taught the MV Foundation that child labour contributes to poverty. Employing children who work 12 to 14 hours a day for meagre wages, depresses the value of adult labour in a given area and reduces the quality of life.

In some of the villages where the MVF have been based and which have become "child labour free" as a result of the organisations work, the MVF have been present to a number of positive effects that occur when children are no longer available for employment. Women's wages have been found to go up three fold, while men who were previously working only a few days start working almost 25 days a month. This is particularly significant since male wages tend to be up to five times higher than those of children.

The abolition of child labour therefore releases previously repressed productivity. Such an effect can however, only be achieved through an inclusive approach that establishes a general norm that all child labour is unacceptable.

The MV Foundation's work has demonstrated clearly that it is not only desirable but also possible to integrate working children into the formal school system, and that poor parents are willing and can send their children to school even without monetary incentives. The sheer numbers of children and diversity of communities reached attest to the strength of this approach. The MV Foundation has worked with in a variety of contexts, with parents and children from different ethnic groups as well as from agricultural, fishing, tribal and even migrant backgrounds. Moreover such has been the impact of the MVF in the state of Andhra Pradesh that it has subsequently been successfully incorporated into the policies and programmes of the state government. The government of Andhra Pradesh now uses the MVF definition of child labour as any child who is out of school. The MVF approach has also been successfully replicated elsewhere; such as on the streets of Calcutta, in the far North-Eastern Indian state of Assam and across international borders in Nepal. This is increasing evidence that such an approach can be applicable to working children in a wide array of different contexts.

The European Union

Historically, child labour in Europe was abolished through minimum age laws linked to the provision of compulsory education. This inextricable link between child labour and education has recently been recognised by a number of European Parliament resolutions, expressing the:
  • Belief "that free, compulsory, quality education should be made available to all children, up to the age of 15 as stipulated by the ILO"(5);
  • Condemnation of "all forms of child exploitation" and call "for the eradication of child labour"(6), and
  • Recognition that "universal full-time education also includes an effective ban on child labour as well as an education system that includes strategies to integrate all out-of-school children"(7).
On child labour specifically there is only one European Parliament Resolution, primarily related to the sports industry. The resolution includes important statements on child labour, noting:
  • That child labour perpetuates poverty and hampers development by driving wages down, putting adults out of work and denying education, and is a violation of human dignity,
  • The close relationship between policies to support education and those to combat child labour.
The resolution therefore calls on the Commission and the Member states to take action in this field, in order to make sure that all children removed from work are rehabilitated and given the opportunity to receive education, health and food(8). This resolution is, however, not reflected in EU Policy. The European Union continues to treat education and child labour as separate issues, and has only a limited number of policy instruments for each. Children's rights in general are given scarce mention in EU development policy and are insufficiently integrated in programming and implementation.

In the Commission there is still not one department that deals with child labour, or even children's rights in general, and officials can be found in several Directorate General's with child labour among their numerous responsibilities. There is no binding document setting out the EU's policy towards child labour. There is also no policy linking the eradication of child labour with the right to education.

Regarding the separate EU policy of the on education, a department in DG Development under the Human and Social Development Unit concerns itself exclusively with Education in developing countries. This department takes its direction from the Council Resolution on "Education and Training in the Context of Poverty Reduction in Developing Countries" and the Commission Communication on the same. These two documents reaffirm the EU commitment to education as an effective poverty reduction strategy. However, they focus primarily on supply side solutions and make scarce reference to child labour. Despite being committed to free and compulsory education, EU policy therefore lacks a vision and strategy to integrate all out-of-school, including working, children into the formal education system.

With regard to financial commitments for education, in the 2004 budget the European Union clarified that of the 35% target for social services in all geographic budget lines for development co-operation, at least 20% must be allocated to basic education and health. Nevertheless the Union's track record of real commitments to basic education is alarming. In 2002, only 0.33% of Overseas Development Aid was allocated to basic education in the Community Budget and the European Development Fund!


The European Union
  1. The European Union, in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the relevant ILO Conventions, should take the appropriate steps to create a coherent policy for the elimination of child labour linked to the provision of full-time formal quality education for all children up to the age of 14.

  2. The European Union should, as a matter of policy, translate its commitments to the right to education for all and the abolition of child labour into its political dialogue with all third countries.

  3. EU policy towards education in developing countries should be adapted to reflect the recognition that the achievement of education for all also requires inventive strategies to stimulate the demand for education, including those that tackle child labour which keeps many children out of schools. These must also include removal of "bureaucratic barriers", such as complicated registration forms, requirement of a birth certificate or medical proof of illness, inadequate school transport, mandatory school uniforms, the impossibility to enrol after a certain age, and so on, all of which make schools inaccessible to poor and illiterate parents. In this context it is also vital that participative strategies are devised to improve the quality of education provided by the official school system. Low quality education in developing countries has often acted as a de-motivating factor and contributed to parents' decision to send their child to work.

  4. HIV/AIDS is proving to be a huge obstacle to the achievement of the MDGs, including the goal of universal education in developing countries. The European Union must recognise the multiple positive effects of basic education on the fight against HIV/AIDS; both from the perspective of the school having the potential to act as a protective environment for the child and the importance of effects of sensibilisation. In light of the necessity to protect future generations from infection, the universalisation of education must be in the forerun of any strategy to combat the disease.

  5. The European Union should use its position and strength in international institutions such as UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank and other international fora, to press the other multilateral donors to adjust their policies to eliminate child labour and reach education targets as to reflect the vital and inextricable link between these issues.

  6. The work of NGO's is of great importance in the fight against child labour and to ensure the right of children to full-time education. NGO's however should not take over the role of the government but rather stimulate the government to take ultimate responsibility for the education system. It is highly recommendable that the European Union identifies and supports civil society organisations (including NGO's and Trade Unions) who can contribute to a policy which works to include all out of school children, including child labourers, into the school system.
The European Commission
  1. The European Commission must ensure that real commitments on basic education are brought into line with the 20% target for basic education and health. In order to achieve this target EU members should work together to allocate at least 8% of Overseas Development Aid to formal primary education, including strategies to integrate all out of school children into the education system. The European Union must also ensure that the 20% target is incorporated into all the geographical instruments and relevant regulations.

  2. All European Union programmes for education in developing countries should be checked and evaluated for their contribution to the fight against all forms of child labour that impede school attendance. This is particularly important in light of the increase of aid for basic education and the danger that it may not reach the most marginalized.

  3. Part-time and other forms of non-formal education should only serve as transition measures and the EU should not support any permanent part-time educational system for working children. Non-formal education systems if applied as permanent solutions can serve to undermine both the goal to eliminate child labour and the endeavour to ensure education for all.

  4. The currently separate policy areas of education in development policy on the one hand (coordinated by DG Development) and the fight against child labour (which as child right's theoretically come primarily under DG External Relations), must be better coordinated and where possible combined.

  5. The EU Commission informal Inter-service group on "child right's", that had arisen in the run up to the UNGASS session on Children, should be revived and institutionalised to provide better coordination between areas such as education, child labour and the fight against HIV/AIDS, to give a more holistic approach to EU programmes on children.
The European Parliament
  1. The European Parliament should take the initiative to develop further its position on the link between the attainment of universal education and the total abolition of child labour.

  2. The European Parliament should maintain specific targets on 20% for basic education and health in the geographic budget lines.

  3. The European Parliament should make provisions to ensure all children will be integrated into formal education, including those from the most vulnerable groups, without any distinction of gender, caste, religion, ethnic origin or economic status.

  4. The European Parliament should effectively control the implementation of the targets related to basic education through the discharge process.

  5. The European Parliament should take pro-active initiatives in relation to the 2005 review of the MDGs with particular emphasis on Target 4: to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005.
The European Council
  1. The Council must fulfil its commitments made in the Resolution of the Council and the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States on education and training in the context of poverty reduction in developing countries in 2002(9) to review in November 2004 progress made on implementation of its recommendations on basic education, and should integrate a perspective that recognises the inextricable link between the abolition of child labour and the universalisation of education.

  2. As part of its commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, the European Council should maintain targets on 20% for basic education and health in the geographic budget lines.

  3. The European Council should make provisions to ensure that all children will be integrated into formal education, including those from the most vulnerable groups, without any distinction of gender, caste, religion, ethnic origin or economic status.

  4. The European Council should develop a clear process to monitor the achievement of the MDGs - in particular towards the review in 2005 of the realisation of the intermediate targets, including on Target 4: to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005.

  5. The European Council should adopt conclusions on the need to include the abolition of child labour as a necessary component of all policies aimed at the achievement of education goals.

  6. The European Council should work with the Member States to ensure that their policies towards developing countries reflect the fact that the eradication of child labour is crucial to the achievement of education goals.

Brussels, October 2004

  1. Resolution of the Council and the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States on education and training in the context of poverty reduction in developing countries, Brussels, 7 June 2002, 9692/02. See also Council Conclusions, 2559th Counciul Meeting, 26th january 2004, 5519/04 (presse26).
  2. ILO/ IPEC, A Future Without Child Labour, 2002.
  3. UNESCO, Financing Education - Investments and Returns, 2002.
  4. New Delhi Declaration, Communiqué adopted at the Roundtable, November 2003.
  5. European Parliament Resolution on basic education in developing countries in the context of the United Nations general Assembly Session on Children in September 2001, Minutes of 06/09/2001 - Final Edition, A5-0278/2001.
  6. European Parliament Resolution on child labour in the production of sports equipment, Minutes of 13/06/2002 - Final Edition, A5-0147/2002.
  7. European Parliament Resolution on the Commission communication to the Council and the European Parliament on education and training in the context of poverty reduction in developing countries (COM(2002) 116 - C5-0333/2002 - 2002/2177(COS)), A5-0126/2003.
  8. European Parliament Resolution on child labour in the production of sports equipment, Minutes of 13/06/2002 - Final Edition, A5-0147/2002.
  9. Resolution of the Council and the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States on education and training in the context of poverty reduction indeveloping countries, 30 May 2002, 9692/02 DEVGEN 80.

Child Labour & Education Kinderarbeid & Onderwijs HOME Landelijke India Werkgroep

India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep - October 20, 2004