We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it



Respite - and respect

Children weaving a hat in Honduras. Photo credit: Neil Cooper/Panos Pictures
Work isn't always grim: a brother and sister helping to make panama hats in San Antonio de Chuchetepeque, Honduras.
Photo credit: Neil Cooper/Panos Pictures

Work damages many children. But it can help others, as Chris Brazier explains.

'Child labour'. I wonder what image those two words conjure up in your mind. My guess is that it will bring forth two images in parallel. On the one hand the children of Victorian Britain locked in their dark satanic mills as the Industrial Revolution took hold. On the other, children from India or Pakistan today, also chained to looms and forced to endure harrowing conditions. And against these nightmarish images are probably counterposed the children of Western societies, freed from the necessity of work, enjoying free education and free play.

Yet if we are not careful these potent images will lead us into a blind alley ­ one marked 'complacency'. People in the rich world tend to assume that child labour, like slavery, is something that was abolished in the rich world about a century ago and that it only exists now in developing countries ­ and this certainty leads them to feel they can preach from the moral high ground to poorer countries still locked in their medieval castles of ignorance and backwardness.

Of course children still routinely work in rich countries but few people see it as exploitative that a child should be employed, for example, to deliver newspapers for an hour or two each day ­ even if they are paid less than adult rates and local child-labour laws are infringed by their working before seven in the morning or after seven in the evening. Often such work is actively encouraged so that a child can gain experience of the 'real world' of work and commerce.

The standard view would be that while this kind of harmless work for pocket money certainly takes place, there is no dangerous 'child labour' in the North. The same view would be likely to maintain that work done by children in the South is more often than not hazardous and exploitative.

Actually both these statements are untrue ­ and examining why will show that 'child labour' is altogether more complex and less clear-cut an issue than is normally supposed.

North...Examples of hazardous child labour can unfortunately still be found in most rich countries ­ and their incidence is probably increasing rather than decreasing. The reason this kind of child work is largely removed from public notice ­ or that a blind eye is turned towards it ­ is that it takes place largely within ethnic-minority or immigrant groups. In the US, for example, immigrant children, usually of Hispanic origin, routinely take part in agricultural work, especially at harvest time; in Britain they are more likely to be South Asian children doing piece-work at home or in garment sweatshops; in Greece they are likely to be of gypsy or Albanian origin.

There is one highly damaging variety of work, though, which is extremely visible and is rife in all rich countries: child prostitution. It is illegal but the laws tend not be enforced and the economic and social conditions that produce it go unchallenged. And somehow nobody ever conceives of it as a form of child labour.

No-one, however, could read Paula's Story (The Prostitute - England), in which a child prostitute from Middlesbrough, England, talks about her life, and still maintain that hazardous child labour does not occur in the rich world. Paula has every bit as bleak a life as the child workers from the Third World interviewed elsewhere in the magazine ­ and far less control of her own destiny than most of them.

People in the industrialized world ­ and the media that represent them ­ have a perfect right to scream from the rooftops about the iniquities of hazardous child labour. But they need to look inside their own houses as well as towards the distant shores.

...and South: Most of the world's hazardous and exploitative child labour, it is true, takes place in the South. At its most extreme it is a modern form of slavery, from the children forced to labour on the sugar-cane estates of north-east Brazil to those the Burmese military government has ordered to work on a new railroad. In the Indian subcontinent this virtual slavery is institutionalized in the shape of 'bonded' child labour, which sees children as young as eight or nine pledged by their parents to employers in payment of a debt.

One of the most notorious examples of bonded child labour is the carpet industry of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh where, according to a recent study, thousands of children in the carpet industry are 'kept in captivity, tortured and made to work for 20 hours a day without a break. Little children are made to crouch on their toes, from dawn to dusk every day, severely stunting their growth during formative years. Social activists in the area find it hard to work because of the strong mafia-like control that the carpet-loom owners have on the area.'1

The continued existence of working conditions like these is a deep stain on human civilization ­ and any action to eliminate child labour has to concentrate first and foremost on cases like these.

Yet it is vital to recognize that the majority of work done by children in the Third World is neither so hazardous nor so exploitative. This is why the term 'child labour' is too explosive and negative to be applied to all work by children. It is insulting to children whose lives are being ruined by hard labour to lump them into the same category as those who help out in the family shop for a couple of hours after school.

Indeed, some kinds of child work are useful, positive contributions to child development.The idea that childhood should be an entirely work-free zone is a luxurious and rather sentimental Western idea. Work for a few hours a day that contributes to the family's well-being ­ whether by performing domestic duties or helping in the family fields ­ is more likely to foster a child's development than to damage it.

And between the two extremes of positive and negative child work ­ in a grey area less susceptible to cut-and-dried judgment as to whether it is exploitative or damaging ­ come the vast majority of children's occupations in all their multiplicity and diversity. Children haul water and collect firewood. They deliver newspapers and tea. They take care of younger siblings. They work on the streets washing windshields, shining shoes or selling cigarettes. They can be found in sweatshops or in their family's sewing room. They are servants in the homes of the better-off .

If we treat all work by children as equally unacceptable we are trivializing the issue and making it less likely that we will be able to root out the most damaging forms of child labour: blanket condemnation helps no-one.People in the rich world consider work by their own children to be acceptable when it is performed for pocket money to buy computer games. It would be thoroughly bizarre if Westerners who allowed their own children to work for pocket money to buy compact discs should seek to outlaw child work in the Third World which is often driven by a poor family's desperate need. In every country, rich or poor, it is the nature and conditions of children's work which determines whether or not they are exploited ­ not the plain fact of their working.

Into this middle territory ­ neither entirely negative nor entirely positive ­ falls the work of many of the children covered in this issue. Ask most of them and they will tell you very clearly that they want to work and that the last thing they want is for Westerners to take away their livelihood by means of legal bans or consumer boycotts. They are even getting themselves organized ­ movements of working children are springing up all over the Majority World, from the famous street children of Brazil to the less celebrated domestic servants of French West Africa. This is such an interesting development that we have given over five pages of this issue to their views: first to an account of their confrontation with European labour ministers and trade unionists over child labour in Amsterdam and second to their own 'manifesto' (See articles, Let us Work and "We the working children of the Third World propose...").

Their message is clear and simple enough: they wish to assert their own right to work in non-exploitative conditions. Given that they are forced to make their way in a brutal world which will offer them no alternative, this is entirely understandable. We can't simply tell them to wait until the glorious day when all child labour is abolished and their material and spiritual needs are more nearly provided for. There has to be an interim strategy of protection.

We should listen to them carefully ­ but that does not have to mean that we have to accept as given a world in which they must work to survive. On the contrary, we should keep in clear mental view a world in which children like these will have options, in which they will have the chance to develop to their full potential ­ and redouble our efforts to bring that world into being.

So what action should we take to combat child labour? The current media furore in the West about child labour makes people want to leap into action. And the most natural weapons to reach for are understandably boycotts or trade sanctions ­ these are often, after all, tactics which this magazine would favour, in response, for example, to gross human-rights abuses.

But, like aid programs, anti-child-labour initiatives must adapt to local conditions. All attempts to cure Third World problems are doomed to do more harm than good if they are designed in the air-conditioned offices of Western capitals. And, despite the extra emotive power, the battle against child labour is no exception.

Who would oppose, for example, the notion that employers in Bangladesh's garment industry should be barred from using children's labour? Surely we're on safe ground here ­ this is hardly the stuff of which heavy-handed development disasters are made. Wrong: when children (most of them girls) were expelled from the garment factories as a result of US pressure in 1993 their families' poverty drove them to more desperate avenues of employment ­ on the streets, in smaller, more hazardous workshops, or even, some claim, to prostitution. The full fascinating story of this episode ­ the implications of which have fundamentally altered the approach to child labour of the key UN agencies ­ is told by a Bangladeshi journalist on in the article Thank you, Mr Harkin, sir!.

It is clear that any program of eliminating child labour which does not provide reasonable alternatives for the child workers it ousts ­ which simply casts them out of a workplace they had only entered due to extreme poverty ­ is dumping on them from the moral high ground an avalanche of negative consequences.

But the goal clearly has to be to stop children entering exploitative work in the first place, which is why education is bound to be the key to any serious onslaught on child labour. We need an education system in the developing world as different from the current one as the sun is from the moon ­ one that is properly resourced and valued, that reaches the poorest children not just in terms of geography but in terms of hearts and minds, that expands their horizons beyond the gate marked 'drudgery'.

The world needs to recover its passion for providing decent, relevant education for all children ­ instead of accepting that educational provision will suffer death by a thousand public-spending cuts in the rich world as well as the poor.

Education needs much more of our money; it also needs our creative thinking about how to develop schools relevant to the needs of actual and potential child workers. When a child says, like Assane from Senegal on Page 14, that he will run a mile if you try and put him in school, he is partly reflecting the inadequacy of the current educational provision. Schools in the Third World are all too often forbidding and inappropriate, and can seem to children as much like a prison as some of the working environments we so decry. Sudhir, an 11-year-old from Kone in southern India, testifies to that: 'In school, teachers would not teach well. If we asked them to teach us alphabets, they would beat us. They would sleep in the class. If we asked them about a small doubt, they would beat us and send us out. Even if we did not understand, they would not teach us. So I dropped out of school.'2

Schools must teach useful skills, that are seen as relevant by both children and parents. They need to be more flexible and adapt to local children's circumstances, for example by adjusting their time-table to the seasonal farming calendar. The Escuela Nueva program in Colombia is a fine example of a state-school system which has adapted successfully to the needs of rural people ­ achieving better results and far fewer drop-outs as a result, as well as enhancing its students' self-esteem.3

Education of this empowering kind can help prevent a child from being trapped by an exploitative employer ­ and, after all, it is exploitation rather than poverty alone which generates child labour. If there were no employers prepared to exploit children, there would be no child labour. Children are more easily intimidated, less likely to organize in trade unions ­ and can be paid much less. This allows employers to put their products on the market at the cheapest possible prices ­ thereby undercutting any company which offers decent wages and conditions to adults. In an increasingly globalized economy the scramble for competitiveness is even more crazed, which is one reason why pious condemnations of child labour by enthusiasts for free trade and globalization in Washington seldom play to great applause in the Majority World.

'The poorest people in the world pay the greatest price,' Jamaica's Health Minister, Peter Phillips, once said about the breaking of developing countries' social and educational provision on the wheel of structural adjustment. 'But that was the price of the international agencies. We made all the noise in the world. None of our appeals had any effect. We do not live in a world in which morality takes precedence.' Child labour makes it clearer than any other issue: it's time to move morality to the fore. *

FOOTNOTES: 1 Neera Burra, Born to Work: Child labour in India OUP Delhi 1995. 2 Concerned for Working Children, Education: Views of the working children, Gramashrama, India 1995. 3 UNICEF, The State of the World's Children1997.


1 Ban the most hazardous forms of child work including bonded labour, work in heavy industry or with dangerous substances and commercial sexual exploitation. Governments should support the upcoming ILO Convention on Hazardous Labour ­ and act against these most extreme forms of child labour immediately.

2 Guarantee universal primary education. If they gave it sufficient priority even the poorest governments could deliver on this goal, to which they have all committed themselves by signing up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

3 Make education more flexible, relevant and attractive to child workers. It is no good simply opening the school doors and assuming children will flock in. photo of Assane There are creative initiatives for state education systems to build on.

4 Register all births.This is vital if there is to be a chance of regulating under-age working.

5 End structural adjustment's crucifixion of Southern economies, which has slashed education spending while fostering a dog-eat-dog climate which helps push children into work on the streets.

6 Raise the status of child domestic workers. Existing laws need to be applied to this forgotten group of child labourers and a new worldwide campaign launched to draw attention to their plight. Consciousness-raising can work wonders here, as a multimedia campaign in Sri Lanka recently proved.

7 Rein in the transnational corporations. In the absence of a world body prepared to regulate the transnationals, consumer pressure must do what it can to force corporations to adopt voluntary codes of conduct. These must apply to their suppliers' employees as well as their own ­ and must offer dismissed children an adequately funded educational alternative.

8 Give child workers' jobs to their own adult relatives so that the family as a whole does not suffer. This must be established as a general principle of anti-child-labour practice worldwide.

9 Support child workers' organizations ­ along with their demand for more protection and rights in the workplace. If children's wages are raised to the level of adults' it will remove one of the main incentives to employ children.

10 Gather more information Data on child labour is notoriously sketchy and inadequate. More research is especially needed into the 'invisible' areas of child labour ­ those within the home, on the family farm or in domestic service ­ which particularly affect girls.

Any comments?

Contents page

Link to NI home page

Subscribe   Ethical Shop