Wednesday, 2 January 2019

The choices adolescent migrants make about work

By Dorte Thorsen

Exploitation is the central theme in all discussions about child labour and even more so when linked with children’s migration for work outside the family sphere. Often it is assumed that children cannot protect themselves against exploitation in the labour market without a parent or a designated guardian looking out for them. An interview with 15-year-old Fatou in Ziguinchor bus station in the Casamance region of Senegal reveals some of the nuances in this debate. 

Fatou is one of the many students from secondary school who proudly works during the long holidays to keep herself in school. In the middle of the holidays this year, she quit a job in a restaurant where she was earning 1000 Fcfa (£1.34) a day but was required to work very hard, for a less arduous job in another restaurant where she was paid 750 Fcfa (£1.00) a day. Not everyone is able to make the same choice though, and choices cannot be made in all spheres of life.

An important nuance to take into account is age. The debate on child labour with its focus on exploitation and harmful work defines a child as a person under 18 years. Fatou’s account shows that a girl aged 15 is capable of making choices and finding alternatives when the employment falls below her expectations.

Another nuance is how the child or adolescent was recruited to the work. Fatou found the jobs in the bus station by herself. However, during our interview it transpired that she had started working in the bus station in the middle of the holidays, because she had worked in her uncle’s fields until then. She was also tasked with cooking for the household on a daily basis. Even during the school year, she cooked for up to twenty people twice a day without much help. This work was unpaid. Although she was overburdened, Fatou could not quit the work.

Originally from Guinea Bissau, she had been placed with relatives in Ziguinchor at a young age. Children and adolescents who have been placed with an employer or a relative cannot leave without the approval of the person who placed them. The few times Fatou’s mother had visited, she never stayed long enough to note the amount of work her daughter was shouldering or the fact that Fatou spent the money earned at the bus station to pay for her own school fees, uniform, notebooks and even soap, so Fatou was not in a position where she could convince her mother to let her move elsewhere. Her ability to make choices was curbed by social rules and fear of defying parents and guardians, and by her educational aspirations which she could pursue while staying with her relatives, albeit with difficulty.

The point I am making here is not about treating unpaid work at home as a form of child labour - Fatou’s case is not the norm. What is important to consider in the planning of child protection and educational interventions is the arenas in which older children are able to make choices. Interventions that hinder older children in doing paid work may impact negatively on their ability to pursue school education or, if they are out of school, their acquisition of vocational skills. Equally important to take note of is the fuzziness of the category “child labour migrant”. Fatou differed from many other participants in this study because she had lived in Ziguinchor for a long time and yet could be considered a migrant. Common for migrant girls in their teens were that they were more likely to live with relatives than boys and that they were assigned more unpaid domestic work, thus impeding their ability to save up for schooling. Boys, on the other hand, spent some of their earnings on accommodation and food. Interventions to support these young migrants must therefore be tailored to their gender and social age.

This study is a collaboration between Dr. Dorte Thorsen and Dr. Mélanie Jacquemin, which with its focus on adoelscent and youth migrants is associated with the Gender and Generation project. The field research was co-financed by the Migrating Out Of Poverty consortium and Mobilités, voyages, innovations et dynamiques dans les Afriques méditerranéenne et subsaharienne (MOVIDA) research programme.

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