Colonial Exceptions: The International Labour Organization and Child Labour in British Africa, c.1919–1940

Research paper by Sacha Hepburn, April Jackson

Indexed on: 14 May '21Published on: 04 May '21Published in: Journal of contemporary history


Journal of Contemporary History, Ahead of Print. From 1919, the International Labour Organization sought to improve protections for workers globally. Concurrently, the organization was dominated by colonial powers whose economies relied on the exploitation of colonized workers. This article explores how the International Labour Organization navigated this contradictory situation during the interwar period, focussing on its approach to child labour in British Africa. The introduction of a universal minimum employment age and the abolition of child labour were founding goals of the International Labour Organization. However, colonial powers wanted to maintain the extensive employment of children and the use of child labour in their colonies. Britain used its influence within the International Labour Organization to promote racialized constructions of childhood and to pluralize working children’s rights in International Labour Organization instruments. While the International Labour Organization’s tripartite structure did also provide a forum through which colonial labour practices could be challenged, Britain and its supporters ultimately succeeded in constructing a two-tier system of international labour law which rendered colonized children less protected than children in the industrialized West. In creating colonial exceptions, the International Labour Organization pursued and promoted a hierarchical and exclusionary form of internationalism. Overall, the article provides new insights into the development of the International Labour Organization and its legislation, as well as broader histories of childhood and of internationalism.