HC Deb 01 June 1938 vol 336 cc2024-8
33. Mr. David Adams

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether his attention has been drawn to a memorandum of the International Labour Office, which states that whereas in Portuguese African Colonies the employment of children under 14 years of age is forbidden, in French African Colonies the employment of native children under 12 is forbidden unless accompanied by adults, and in Spanish Colonies the corresponding age is 15 years, in Kenya, Uganda and Northern Rhodesia children are employable at the age of 12; and whether, seeing that since the publication of this memorandum the age at which children are employable in Kenya has been reduced to 10 years, he will take immediate steps to safeguard the health and morals of native children in British African Colonies by raising the British standards at least to an equality with those of the other countries named?

53. Mr. Watkins

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether his attention has been called to the Act in Kenya Colony laying down a minimum age of 10 years for child contract labour; and whether, in view of the fact that in Portuguese African Colonies the minimum age is 14 years, in Spanish Colonies 15 years, and in some French Colonies 12 years, he will recommend to the Governor of Kenya Colony the introduction of an amending Act raising the minimum age?

The Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Malcolm MacDonald)

In view of the interest which this matter has aroused in the Press and elsewhere, I think it desirable that my reply should be full and detailed; and, as it is rather long, I will, with the hon. Members' permission, circulate it in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Mr. Adams

Are we to understand that action will be taken to bring Kenya into line with other African Colonies?

Mr. MacDonald

When the hon. Member reads the reply, he will see that he is under a misapprehension as to the situation in the other African Colonies. I am, as he will see, causing inquiry to be made into the whole question as far as our African Colonies are concerned.

Mr. Watkins

Is it true that in Kenya there is an age limit of 12 years for child contract labour, or 10 years?

Mr. MacDonald

In certain circumstances it is 10 years. Perhaps the hon. Member will read the reply and he will see that the qualifications in regard to that minimum age limit are fully set forth.

Mr. Watkins

Whatever the qualifications are, can 10 years of age be justified for this class of labour?

Mr. MacDonald

As I have said, I am causing inquiries to be made into the whole question.

Mr. Paling

Even if inquiries are being made, is there any reason why, seeing that the age limit of 10 has been laid down, the right hon. Gentleman should not deal with the case, here and now?

Mr. MacDonald

I should not like to deal with it without making very full inquiries first.

Following is the answer:

I presume the hon. Member for the Consett Division of Durham (Mr. David Adams) is referring to the recent report of the International Labour Office entitled "Regulation of Contracts of Employment of Indigenous Workers."

The description in these two questions of the position in the Portuguese, French and Spanish Colonies as revealed in this report is incomplete and omits any reference to the numerous exceptions which the report states are permitted by the legislation of those countries. For example, there is no mention of the fact that in the Spanish Colonies children between 10 and 15 years of age may be employed in domestic service on condition that the work is suitable to their age, nor of the fact that in the French Cameroons children under 12 years of age may be employed in agricultural, commercial and industrial undertakings where such undertakings are conducted by members of their family. I am sending the hon. Members a complete extract of the information given in the International Labour Office Report regarding the employment of children and young persons in the territories referred to.

The framers of the International Labour Conventions relating to the minimum age for the admission of children to industrial and non-industrial employment, and to the employment at night of young persons in industry, recognised that the ages prescribed in these Conventions were not necessarily suitable to conditions obtaining in countries situated in non-temperate climates. The Treaties of Peace further provide that States Members of the International Labour Organisation shall apply International Labour Conventions which they have ratified to their non-self governing Colonial Dependencies except when owing to local conditions the Convention is inapplicable or subject to such modifications as may be necessary to adapt the convention to local conditions. When the application of the convention relating to the employment of children in industry was under consideration some years ago, it was decided that in the case of the East African Dependencies a lower age limit than that prescribed in the Convention was justifiable, for various reasons. The Governors of the East African Dependencies were accordingly informed that, so far as industrial employment was concerned, a lower age limit might be substituted for the age of 14 prescribed in the International Labour Convention, provided that they were satisfied that the adoption of a lower age was in the best interests of the Dependency and of the children themselves and that adequate arrangements were made for the inspection and supervision of such employment. It was, however, made clear that in no case should a lower general age limit than 12 years be adopted in respect of children employed in industry.

With regard to Uganda and Northern Rhodesia the provision of the relevant laws are as follows. In Uganda, the legislation prescribed inter alia that no child may be employed in any factory or workshop unless he has attained the age of 12 years and is medically fit, and that no child between the ages of 12 and 14 years may be employed in any factory or workshop unless the employment has been authorized by the Factories Board.

The board only issue licenses on condition that the employment shall not be for more than eight hours in any one day, that there shall be a rest interval of an hour, that no child shall be employed between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. and that the necessary safety precautions are provided. In the case of cotton ginneries, the regulations provide that no child shall be employed for more than seven hours on any one day, and for more than four hours continuously, at the conclusion of which there shall be a rest period of not less than one hour. The regulations also prohibit the employment of children in certain specified occupations connected with machinery. With regard to apprenticeship contracts, the father or guardian of a child between 9 and 16 years of age may, with the child's consent, apprentice him to a trade or employment in which art or skill is required, or as a domestic servant, for a term not exceeding five years; such contracts of apprenticeship have to be in writing and are invalid unless attested by and made with the approval of a magistrate having jurisdiction in the district concerned.

In Northern Rhodesia, the legislation provides inter alia that no child under the age of 12 years may be employed in any public or private industrial undertaking other than one in which only members of the same family are employed; the definition of "undertaking "corresponds with that laid down in the International Labour Convention. No child between the ages of 12 and 14 years can be so employed unless the employment has been authorized by a license issued by the Governor. Children are prohibited from being employed at night. With regard to contracts of service, a father or guardian of a native child under the age of 16 years may contract for the child's services, subject to the consent of the child if he has attained the age of 12 years. In the case of apprenticeship contracts, the legislation provides that these shall be in writing and shall be executed before a District Commissioner who has to satisfy himself that the apprenticeship is for the benefit of the child and see that due provision is made in the contract for the apprentice's maintenance and instruction. In the case of destitute children, the District Commissioner is ex-officio the child's guardian and may lawfully apprentice the child.

With regard to Kenya the position is as follows. The Employment of Servants Ordinance, 1937, contains a provision which prohibits any juvenile who appears to be below the age of 10 years from being allowed to enter into a contract of service. It follows from this that children above the age of 10 years are allowed, under the law, to enter into such contracts. The provision is, however, subject to stringent restrictions, imposed by other provisions of this Ordinance and by provisions of the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Ordinance, 1933. Under these provisions no child under the age of 12 may be employed in any industrial undertaking: and no child under the age of 14 may be employed in attendance on any machinery, or in any open-cast workings or sub-surface workings which are entered by means of a shaft or adit, and no juvenile under the age of 16 may be employed as a porter, fuel cutter, trolley or rickshaw boy or in any other class of labour for which, in the opinion of a Government Medical Officer, he is physically unsuitable. There are also restrictions on the employment of children on ships or at night. The effect of these provisions is that in Kenya children under 12 cannot be employed on other than light work. It may be added that even for this kind of work the law provides that children cannot be recruited without a certificate from the District Officer, who may withhold such certificate for any reason deemed by him to be sufficient.

I am at present considering whether the policy which is embodied in the various Ordinances which I have described is adequate to prevent the employment of children at ages and under conditions to which objection on humanitarian grounds could legitimately be taken. I am accordingly calling for reports from the Governors concerned on this matter, and when I receive them I shall carefully review the whole position. I am also making inquiries as to whether the administrative arrangements for enforcing the present provisions of the law are adequate: and, in the case of Kenya, I am giving special consideration to the question whether any amendment is called for of the provisions under which the employment of children under 12 years of age on contract is made permissible in certain cases.