By Dorte Thorsen
Debates about child labour are often emotional and deeply moral. Campaigns use images of small children doing work that looks much too hard, often in dirty rags and sometimes crying. These images speak to the consciousness of northern consumers, not least because they link children’s work in commercial crops, garment factories and mines with their consumption of chocolate, clothing, and various minerals.
Such images also prompt policies to eradicate child labour. Policy-makers have recently called for private companies involved in global supply chains take action to tackle child labour. But what exactly falls under the label ‘child labour’?
Defining child labour
The definition of child labour has evolved over the years; from including all productive activities, to equating child labour with paid employment and as distinctly different from unpaid work within the family. The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) current interpretation of child labour is that it is work that deprives children of their childhood, potential and dignity, and is harmful to their physical and mental development.
The ILO also states that not all work done by children should be classified as child labour. If work does not affect the child’s health and personal development negatively and does not interfere with schooling, there is no reason to label it as child labour. In such cases, work is likely to help children and adolescents to build skills and experience for their future. This interpretation is a significant softening of earlier stances on child labour.
Yet, skills development appears to be perceived mostly as chores around the home and in the family business or as earning pocket money outside school hours and during school holidays. Clearly, children are not seen as workers but as school children. Moreover, it is inherently difficult, if not impossible, to measure the three areas of deprivation set out in ILO’s definition of child labour.The language and statistics used in international campaigns about child labour are confusing in several other ways. On campaign posters, UNICEF state that 168 million children are forced to work. This choice of language stimulates associations to forced labour and modern slavery, even though being forced to work may also hail from necessity and does not inevitably imply exploitation. ILO tells us that 168 million children are in child labour but says nothing about being forced to work. Instead, ILO notes that 85 million are in hazardous work.Figures are frequently communicated as facts despite being estimates. One example is the announcement that the number of children in child labour fell by a third between 2000 and 2012, further detailed by the ILO as a fall by 40% among girls and 25% by boys. A key message from both UNICEF and ILO is that actions to eradicate child labour are effective. Indisputably some of them are, but the lower figure might also pertain in part to the changing definition of child labour. The ambiguous use of figures begs questions about which children should be targeted in programmes addressing child labour?
Approaches to tackling child labour
Contrasting approaches to child labour and child protection exist. On the one hand, abolitionists advocate universal labour standards and a complete ban on child labour. Standards concerning the minimum age for admission to employment (ILO Convention No. 138) are central to this standpoint. This is based on the assumption that keeping children out of work up to a certain age will keep them safe and in school. The call on private companies to root out child labour in their supply chains and their subsequent actions usually fall in this category.
On the other hand, a child-centred approach is gaining ground, which looks more at the issues that motivate children’s work and how they perceive their labour force participation. It is based on the assumption that working children are best supported through protecting them against exploitation and hazardous working conditions. Standards concerning the worst forms of child labour (ILO Convention No. 182) are central to this standpoint.
Troubles with the ‘child labour’ label
Despite the drive for universal standards, all countries have not stipulated the same minimum working age nor does it remain fixed. Special provisions for developing countries means that some signatories have set 14 years as the official minimum age, others 15 or 16 years. Burkina Faso, for example, increased the minimum age from 14 to 16 years in 2008 to align with legislation concerning compulsory education, while Guinea allowed 12-year-old children to work provided their parents or guardians gave written consent. Consequently, programming to eradicate child labour addresses children under twelve in some countries and adolescents up to sixteen in others. Clearly, a standardised approach is inappropriate from a child protection point of view. But will the companies sourcing materials in different countries be willing to address such differences?
When children or adolescents are barred from work due to their age, the reason why they are working and what they gain from this work is not taken into account. They may indeed need to work due to poverty and family circumstances, but they may also choose to work because they receive valuable economic and social rewards for their work. Regardless of the underlying reasons, they may be immensely proud of their ability to earn.
Allowing children’s and adolescents’ views on their work to be heard and seeing it in context is a recognition of them as social actors, and of their rights according to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child to participate in decisions concerning them. It does not condone the exploitation of working children, nor does it say children always make good decisions. The child-centred approach challenges the idea that the solution to child labour is a ban. Evidence shows that when children and adolescents under the minimum age for entry into paid employment are barred from work, they are often driven into more hazardous and exploitative work. Moreover, if protection is tied to age and not working conditions, adolescents over the minimum age may be subject exploitation and harm.
Worst forms of child labour
ILO Convention No. 182 concerning the worst forms of child labour is a useful instrument. It prohibits employing children up to the age of 18 years to do work considered hazardous to their physical, mental and moral health and development, work that is severely exploitative, or involving children in illicit activities, pornography, and sex work. However, like the minimum age standards, standards concerning occupation and working conditions can also be problematic if applied in broad brushstrokes to classify an entire sector as a worst form of child labour.
This is the case for domestic service in Rwanda, for example. Yet, young children and older children rarely do the same chores. In many situations, the boys and girls employed as domestic workers do chores that are in accordance with local perceptions of what is age-appropriate. Young domestic workers are mostly engaged to do childcare, clean and collect water, while older domestic workers are deemed sufficiently knowledgeable and mature to be tasked with cooking. Unsurprisingly the ways in which domestic workers below 18 years are treated can be placed on a continuum from very good to very bad, suggesting that a case-by-case use of the Convention No. 182 to protect working children would be more adequate.
Working children’s potential
The assumption that children drop out of school to do paid work is a persistent idea among abolitionists. Evidence focusing on adolescent migrants from rural areas who have come to the city to work shows that this is rarely the case. Most of the adolescents drop out of school due to school malfunctioning or their parents’ inability to pay school-related expenses. This is particularly prevalent at senior secondary level when schooling becomes notably more expensive. Adolescents counter the lack of opportunity in rural areas by leaving for the city.
Many of them migrate with the objective of continuing education while working or back home when they have saved up money for fees. Distant relatives who employ an adolescent to work for them, frequently promise to pay fees for vocational training instead of a wage. Migration is thus a means to continue education in one way or other. Even for those who do not pursue education in the formal sense, the migratory and occupational trajectory is often structured by an element of learning. Through work they acquire skills that allow them to ask for jobs that command higher wages and shift from unskilled work to lowly skilled, urban work.
These children and adolescents may not engage in the production of goods serving global commodity chains, but the issues their work project regarding educational prospects, risks, and vulnerability are important to bear in mind. Companies sourcing globally may help working children by recognising that not all are involved in child labour. They can also insist on standards concerning occupation and working conditions being used sensibly by producers, sub-contractors and law-enforcing authorities in order to protect working children and help them attain skills and education.
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