Underage boys sell vegetables on the Soweto highway. The money they make is often crucial for their survival or the survival of their families. Picture: Paballo Thekiso

Child labour is often attributable to the failure of government to meet the child’s basic needs, says Caroline Nicholson.

Johannesburg - As South Africa celebrates World Day Against Child Labour on Thursday, let us not be complacent. Our constitution and various pieces of legislation and programmes directed towards meeting the needs of children are to be welcomed but the reality is they have failed to realise a better life for many children.

Children seldom have any say in the circumstances in which they find themselves and those faced with extreme poverty are often forced by circumstance to look for jobs.

The South African economy is the second largest on the African continent. Despite this, there is rampant unemployment and endemic poverty.

Social grants have improved the lot of many children but they do not reach all of them. Child labour is, in many instances, attributable to the failure of the government to meet the child’s basic needs as poverty remains a primary driver.

The government has taken steps to recognise the problem of child labour and to address it with varying degrees of success.

The constitution states unequivocally that children have a right to be protected from exploitative, dangerous, inappropriate and hazardous work that is detrimental to their full development; the National Child Labour Programme of Action was developed and implemented with a view to protecting children from child labour; South Africa is party to a number of international conventions aimed at eliminating child labour in general and the worst forms of it in particular; and domestic legislation that regulates the formal labour sector has been promulgated to make it increasingly difficult for young people to take up formal employment .

One sector in which child labour was extremely common and in which some measure of success has been enjoyed is agriculture. Literature suggests child labour on farms has diminished substantially, with the welcome side-effect that children are staying in schools longer and seeing some prospect of breaking out of the cycle of poverty in which preceding generations found themselves.

However, for some families, the lack of work opportunities for children on farms has meant the loss of a necessary source of income.

Further, with the ban on child labour in the formal sector, some children have not remained in school and have turned to alcohol and drugs.

Social grants are only available to children until they reach the age of 18. This means that the reality of further education will continue to be denied those who have to quit school to earn a living when the grant peters out. In addition, social grants do not reach all children, especially those that are undocumented migrants.

The impending economic recession South Africans face, coupled with the frighteningly high unemployment figures tend to indicate that households with no income are increasing and those children who seek to support themselves, especially those who have no access to social grants, will be forced into the labour market.

With formal labour denied them through a combination of job shortages and legislative restrictions, many will be forced into high risk and exploitative forms of child labour such as the sex trade, selling alcohol and drugs and, in extreme cases, theft and other criminal activity.

Government programmes and services to address the needs of this vulnerable group and to realise their inalienable human rights remain a pressing priority.

Despite the obvious problems associated with working in an unregulated sector, such as the lack of benefits, no regulation of working hours and no form of dispute resolution process, the informal sector is a dangerous place for children who are vulnerable to the worst forms of exploitation.

Thus, although the successes in combating child labour that have followed current initiatives restricting the practice are to be applauded, it continues to threaten many children’s right to healthy development and education.

These children have a right to special protection, not just in South Africa but across the continent.

Every child whose needs fall through the cracks is a child denied opportunities for full development. Each child thus denied is a child too many.

* The World Day Against Child Labour is an International Labour Organisation (ILO) sanctioned day first launched in 2002 to raise awareness and activism to prevent child labour. It draws attention to the role of social protection in preventing children from working and removing them from labour they are already engaged in. Last year, at the III Global Conference on Child Labour in Brasilia, the international community adopted the Brasilia Declaration, which stresses the need for decent work for adults, free, compulsory and quality education for all children and social protection for all.

Echoing those priorities, World Day 2014 calls for:

* Action to introduce, improve and extend social protection.

* National social security systems that are sensitive to children’s needs and help fight child labour.

* Social protection that reaches out to especially vulnerable groups of children.

** Caroline Nicholson is a professor in the Department of Jurisprudence, Faculty of Law, at the University of Pretoria.

*** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Star