White Paper | Child Labour in Sport: Protecting the Rights of Child Athletes

The White Paper, Child Labour in Sport: Protecting the Rights of Child Athletes, was launched last week at the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour, held in Durban, South Africa. The White Paper is available for downloading here, and below is the Executive Summary quoted.

For those not able to attend the session live, a video of the session is available above. The video concludes with some very interesting remarks by the South African Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, Mr. Nkosinathi Emmanuel ‘Nathi’ Mthethwa.

Executive Summary

It is widely understood and appreciated that healthy and age-appropriate sport can be of great benefit in the lives of children. So pervasive is a belief in the essential ‘goodness’ of sport that there is a deep-seated reluctance to consider any negative aspects of sport, despite widespread evidence of harms that may be occasioned by participating in sports.

This White Paper is focused specifically on the work of children in, or on the pathway to, elite (high- performance and professional) sport, and the experiences of children and the situations they may encounter that are analogous to child labour. Although children in high- performance and professional sport are not included in the current understanding and measurement of child labour, this paper argues that the conditions and impacts they experience are similar to those of children working in more recognized forms of child labour. Evidence to support this argument is derived from an in-depth review of relevant literatures, and from a series of 24 Consultations with various expert groups.

The White Paper is also a contribution toward the achievement of SDG target 8.7 which calls for the eradication of all forms of child labour by 2025 and respect for the legal obligations of States contracted under ILO Conventions 138 and 182, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

The paper begins by defining children’s work in the global industry of high-performance and professional sports. Since athletes are the key ‘players’ in this industry, and since playing careers tend to be quite short, the industry depends on a constant pipeline that delivers aspiring and talented child athletes. Their work, which involves early specialization in a sport, intensive and high-volume regular training and involvement in repeated high stakes competition, meets the criteria for child labour outlined in the ILO and UN Conventions noted above. Children’s development as athletes is facilitated by a wide range of adults, some of whose livelihoods depend on the work of children.

Not all work by a child automatically qualifies as ‘child labour’ to be eliminated. Child athletes are considered to be engaged in labour when their participation in sport involves “economic exploitation and… performing 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.” Child athletes are considered to be at work when they are participating in sport for their own or someone else’s gain or engaged in intensive training in order to do so in the future.

Key findings from the literature review and Consultations consider: (1) the context for this White Paper, how child labour in sport intersects with children’s rights in sport in the prevailing system of developing elite child athletes; the harms arising from this system are then considered with regard to (2) the overlapping categories of health, welfare, risk and safety with a focus on injury, abuse and violence; (3) the difficult situation of families with a child in elite sport, and the education of children in elite sport are the considered, followed by (4) an brief overview of trafficking and the international transfer of child athletes, and the possibilities and problems of specialist sport academies. The key findings conclude with a brief consideration of some culturally specific forms of child labour in sport.

In almost every sector of life, childhood is recognized as a distinct and separate period of growth and development, where adults have a duty of care for children. This distinction is widely recognized in international and (most often) domestic law and made in every sector from education to labour legislation, but not in sport. Minors who qualify to compete at an adult level of high-performance or professional sport are expected to ‘work’ – train and compete – at the same level as and usually with adult athletes.

This White Paper endorses a child rights approach to govern children’s involvement in sport by bringing together child rights and child labour law, policies, standards and regulations to better protect children at any level of high-performance and professional sport. The primary aim is to provide guidance to States and sport organisations to enable them to enact policy to nurture talented children in sport while acting in their best interests, fully taking into account their holistic development as children and respecting and protecting their rights.

This guidance is outlined in a series of 17 Recommendations. These include advocating the recognition that some aspects of children’s participation in sport are analogous to child labour; asserting that children’s rights guide all decisions concerning children in situations analogous to child labour; and arguing that sports bodies and states should introduce and regulate appropriate minimum ages, and maximum hours for children’s training and competition in elite sport.

Parallels are drawn with the entertainment, advertising and cultural industries where some States and jurisdictions impose age-appropriate restrictions on children’s work. Other Recommendations urge the consideration of children as ‘protected persons’ in elite sport and seek assurances that children will be made aware of their rights; and several Recommendations concern the parents of child athletes and the education of child athletes.

The significance of acting on this guidance and implementing the recommendations set out at the end of this paper will be realised in the form of a healthier, well-balanced, sustainable and more child-centred emphasis in the sport development system.


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