New Internationalist

Middle Aged At Eleven

August 1984

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ADOLESCENCE [image, unknown] Child Labour

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Middle aged at eleven
A report on child labour

For some children there are no rites of passage. They are forced from early childhood into prematurely adult lives. The International Labour Office estimates that at least 50 million, possibly 100 million, under - 15 year olds are involved in child labour. Nearly 98 per cent live in the developing world; the rest mostly in southern Europe.

Almost universally in peasant communities, children are expected to share in domestic and agricultural duties - bird-scaring, collecting water or firewood, herding animals. It’s part of the normal socialisation process - but increasing landlessness means that these children may find no future on a family farm. And labouring up to seven hours a day means that they don’t get to go to school. So these children are locked into unskilled jobs - which means low-paying, unpleasant or unsafe jobs - for the rest of their lives.

In the growing industrial sector children are separated from their families more and more often to work long hours in factories. Children as young as seven work up to 72 hours a week in Moroccan factories making carpets for export to prosperous Western countries. Some are paid as little daily as the price of a loaf of bread. And because children are small, they are often given the most hazardous jobs - creeping under moving parts of machinery to collect dust or holding welding parts together - unprotected, though the welder may have protective equipment.

Other children survive on the street. They are reduced to sleeping on pavements and feeding themselves through marginal jobs like shoe-shining or garbage-sorting. Some turn to prostitution or beggary.

It’s not Just city-slickers that abuse children. Landlessness has led to the search for wage employment on commercial farms. Children work for wages as part of contracted family labour or individually - shades of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. An even worse situation can arise when families rent plots of land: if the family falls into debt, the child may be given to the landowner.

Such horrifying situations - when a child is reduced to a form of currency - arise out of economic Inequality. It is often said that child labour is rooted in poverty. It could be expressed another way" - child labour is evidence of social blackmail - for those who exploit the child’s vulnerability are also exploiting the family’s vulnerability, and their point of weakness is their poverty.

Employers offer jobs to children that they could offer to adults - rates of child labour and adult unemployment tend to be high simultaneously. Adults might demand better payment or conditions. Children are defenceless - and by putting the family’s income, their life-support system, into the slender hands of the child, the whole family is kept submissive.

Simply to forbid child labour would sink these families. Alongside legislation to protect children there must be increased adult and youth employment - and large-scale political reforms to reduce the inequality that allows the rich to blackmail the poor.

See also Ashok Mitra - Taking issue.

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This feature was published in the August 1984 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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