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

Let Us Work!


Emmanuel, who is eight, sells ice lollies on the streets of Recife, Brazil. Photo by Anthony Swift.
Let us work!

Working children all over the world are starting to get organized – and are sending delegates
to confront rich-world politicians and trade unionists. Anthony Swift watches the sparks fly.

Lakshmi basrur started making beedis (cheap cigarettes) with her mother as a very young child. ‘It hurts your back a lot and you breathe in tobacco dust. People who do the work get TB,’ she says. When Lakshmi was ten, her father abandoned the family; she left her school and home in Kolkere, Karnataka, India, to become a domestic worker. ‘I cleaned the house and took care of the child. I was up at five in the morning and worked till ten at night. There were so many rooms I could never finish the work. It was like being beaten.’

To support his family and pay for his schooling, Vidal Cocoa Mamani (now 17) went at the age of 12 to work in the Mucumayo (Deep River) gold mine in a remote part of Peru. ‘Sometimes, climbing a steep track from the mine to the deposit, I was made to carry sacks of ore that were too heavy for me. If you refused you were fired. I used to carry the ore on the same shoulder and developed problems with my legs.’

Now teenagers, Lakshmi and Vidal were delegates to the Amsterdam Conference on Child Labour, the aim of which was to identify the most pernicious forms of child labour, their causes and how they might be eradicated. Invited by the Dutch Government, in the new spirit of children’s participation, they were among eight representatives of movements of working children in Central and South America, West Africa and Asia.

More conventional delegates who imagined the children might sing a few songs or do a theatrical turn were in for a rude awakening. Attended by government ministers, union and business bosses, representatives of voluntary organizations and international agencies from 30 countries, the Conference launched a formal international debate that will inform the drawing up by the International Labour Organization (ILO) of a new Convention on Hazardous Child Labour, due in three years’ time.

The children’s delegates listened for six hours to statements by Ministers and others before they got their first chance to speak. The Conference message was that intolerable and criminal forms of child labour – bonded and other types of enforced labour, physically and psychologically damaging work, prostitution and pornography and work that deprived children of an education – could and should be tackled within a set time-frame. Delegates stressed that children should not be simply removed from work but received into rehabilitation programs and that they should benefit from universal, compulsory, high-quality primary schooling and enhanced family earning-power.

But many speakers felt the new convention ought not to replace but rather to galvanize support for the current ILO Convention 138 which, though it has been signed by very few countries, essentially aims to abolish all child work, aiming to establish a basic minimum age of 15.

‘Nearly all child labour is intolerable and nearly all is criminal,’ contended Neil Kearney, General Secretary of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation, reinforcing his case with a sampling of dire examples of child exploitation. ‘If the agenda of those pushing for action on intolerable forms results in other child labour being ignored I think future generations of working children will never forgive us.’

It was in this context that the children’s delegates gave their countervailing message loud and clear, urging not abolition but regulation. Action should be taken, they said, to eradicate the most pernicious forms of child labour. But, in the absence of a real assault on the root causes of poverty, children had to have the right to work. It was not work but exploitation in the workplace that had to be targeted, and not only that of children. Was it any better to be exploited after the age of 15?

‘We say “yes” to work, “no” to exploitation; “yes” to work, “no” to ill-treatment; “yes” to work, “no” to abuses; “yes” to work, “no” to social exclusion,’ intoned Ana Maria Catin Torrentes (17), of the Movement of Working Children and Adolescents in Nicaragua.

Romaine Dieng, from the West African Movement of Working Children and Youth, needed no conference to tell her the causes of child labour. ‘The economic crisis, the impact of structural-adjustment programs, unemployment, lack of school and health provision, lack of education, widespread injustice, the chasm between rich and poor, the failure of governments to support working children, and the lack of protection for such children – both girls and boys,’ were among those she reeled off.
The many existing laws and conventions guaranteeing children’s well-being had yet to produce any great improvement for the world’s more than 250 million child workers, suggested the children’s representatives. There are laws aplenty – what is lacking is the political will.

For children well schooled in the duplicity of the adult world, promises by politicians of antipoverty and rehabilitation measures are to be weighed not in words but actions. In the meantime, education without work wouldn’t wash. ‘There is no point offering us quality education if you deny us work,’ said Lakshmi Basrur, of Bhima Sangha, a working children’s union in Karnataka, India. ‘Our families’ survival depends on our working. The day should come when children need not work. Till then, they should have access to dignified work and good-quality but appropriate education, as well as time for leisure.’

Even with intolerable forms of labour, the young delegates were concerned about the implementation of global bans. Children might be displaced into even worse circumstances, such as prostitution and crime, or be at greater risk of abandonment. Each situation had to be taken case by case and the children in such work fully consulted and listened to before bans were applied, argued Lakshmi.

Some of the young delegates were furious with reporters and other delegates who used their quotes to portray work as purely dangerous and abusive. ‘That is manipulation,’ said Vidal, of the National Movement of Organized Working Children, in Peru. ‘I want to make it very clear that work is not all bad. I didn’t discover only exploitation in the mines. There were adults who really cared for us. We also had moments of gaiety, making a sport of racing each other in carrying the ore. There was joy in work.’

Such statements deeply troubled certain conference delegates – not least those from trade unions. Some suggested that the children had been ‘coached’ or manipulated by adults, an allegation confounded by their conviction in arguing their cause. Others latched on to a point of apparent disunity; Lidja Pereira da Silva (15), from the National Movement of Street Children in Brazil, differed from her colleagues by supporting a ban on work below the age of 14. However, in their intensive pre-conference deliberations, the children’s delegates had already decided how to deal with this. ‘We don’t all have to think identically,’ they said. ‘Circumstances in Brazil are different and require a different response.’

Other people questioned the young delegates’ right as teenagers to speak for working children. A Tanzanian trade-union leader who did so was sharply rebuffed. ‘You are here to speak for children,’ responded Vidal. ‘Are you five years old? I dare say you have not even been a working child. I must tell you that we are elected by working children in our countries to come here.’

Locked into battles with bosses to protect their members’ interests in a context of privatization, downsizing and deregulation, the unions fear any yielding on child work will be seized upon by employers to open the flood-gates, further undermining the wages and job security of adult formal-sector workers. The children, on the other hand, need to work if they and their families are to survive but also see work as a means of being valued by and integrated into society, instead of marginalized into more criminal activities.

Happy to speak out: Ana Maria from Nicaragua and Vidal from Peru.

‘Through my work I felt I was part of society,’ said Vidal. ‘I felt responsible and proud that I was contributing by paying for my education and that of my brothers and sisters.’ Work should not be the possession of any group, he argued, but a universal right, available to both children and adults.

‘Children raise questions which are very different from traditional trade-union concerns,’ says Nandana Reddy of the International Working Group on Child Labour, which staged the First International Meeting of Child Workers in Karnataka last year. ‘They go beyond issues of wages and working conditions to community concerns and beyond their own interests to those of all children.’

The children’s delegates spoke in support of ten resolutions hammered out at preceding local, regional and international meetings of working children (see ‘We, the working children of the world’). In addition to the right to dignified part-time work, allowing access to leisure and appropriate education and occupational training, they called for an end to consumer boycotts of the produce of child labour. But they also wanted access to proper healthcare and demanded that the root causes of their difficulties – primarily poverty – be tackled.

You might think that adults, seriously bent on ending the oppression of children, would take a close interest in children present who had so triumphed over their own oppression as to become articulate advocates for their own cause.

You would be wrong. Surprisingly few delegates really sought them out. Notable among those who did were Swedish Labour Minister Margareta Winberg and Carol Bellamy, head of UNICEF, which has played a key role in promoting children’s participation and organization. But the attitudes of some delegates raised fears that they might pressure the Norwegian Government not to invite their young counterparts to the next phase of the debate – a conference in Oslo in November, focusing on implementation. ‘Perhaps some other children should take part?’ suggested a union delegate, possibly referring to union-organized apprentices.

What the children’s representatives had in common is that their movements are in the very vanguard of promoting the participation and organization of children of the underclass. The adult resource people who support them – variously known as
volunteers, collaborators and street educators – start from where the children are, in the streets and other workplaces and poor communities. They offer them what the world as it is structured systematically denies them, as well as their families and poor communities – respect, companionship and solidarity. They encourage them to form groups to discuss, analyze and find ways to overcome their common problems and work to reinforce family and community solidarity.

Some working children’s movements already play a vigorous part in local and even national policy-making. Lakshmi’s movement, Bhima Sangha, has gained representation on the taskforces of five village authorities, producing some substantive changes in children’s lives. The National Movement of Street Boys and Girls is playing a major role in negotiating the implementation of children’s legal rights throughout Brazil. Meanwhile the National Movement of Organized Working Children in Peru has developed a curriculum for working children, established it in a government school and is now negotiating to have other schools take it up.

Through such interventions, organized children are already helping to produce positive changes in public attitudes and social provision. Their deliberations are surprisingly mature and scrupulously democratic. The leadership they value is the kind that facilitates everyone’s participation. Through their organizations children learn to conduct themselves as citizens – and challenge the adult world to do the same. It is this process that they trust to bring about real social change.

But what is citizenship? ‘It is to be the subject of rights and know your responsibilities,’ said Vidal. ‘It is to want to be treated as a member of society, not as a victim of poverty. As citizens we should be respected – whether we are very small kids, working children, adults or old people. Citizenship is the exercise of mutual respect.’

That is the vision that will be shut out if the doors are closed to them in Oslo.

Anthony Swift is a regular contributor to the NI. His book Children for Social Change (ISBN 1-900219-09-3) is available from bookshops or from Educational Heretics Press, Bramcote Hills, Nottingham NG9 3FQ, England.


photo by ANTHONY SWIFT Sawai’s story
Sawai Langlah, of Srisaket Province in north-east Thailand, had to find work at the age of 13 when her father, a construction worker, suddenly became paralyzed. There was no work locally so she had to leave school and get a job far from home in the capital, Bangkok, through a cousin who was already working in a small garment factory.

We think my father’s paralysis was to do with overworking. One day he came home exhausted and fainted. When he woke up again he was paralyzed. I was very miserable at leaving home and frightened of going to the city but I also knew it was my only hope to continue with my schooling. Because I knew nothing about sewing I had to learn everything from scratch. My employer said I would have to do domestic work to repay him for the training I would receive.

It was a very small family business – a three-storey house which was also the owner’s home. I was paid very little – 500 baht ($25) a month. Out of that I had to pay back 100 baht for my housing and my food; though they gave us only cooked rice and if we wanted anything with it, we had to buy it.

There were six people working in the factory and we all shared one room. The room we worked in was very narrow with about five machines in it and the lighting was very poor. I worked from eight in the morning to midnight. This was a privilege. My cousin often stayed up sewing until two in the morning.

I was supposed to be an apprentice but I wasn’t really given any training. I had to do a lot of housework. I washed clothes and cleaned the house and kitchen. I could be called to do it at any time. I was lucky to have my cousin there: when my employer was out she would teach me and I would also watch how the others worked. That’s how I got trained. I learned quickly. Usually it takes eight months. Within a couple of months my sewing was in demand.

I don’t think the owner was a bad man. He did not abuse me. He shouted at me only if I yelled at his child. Sometimes he let us watch TV. He was just stingy.

After I was there two-and-a-half months he took a big order from a factory making clothes for little children and needed more labour. He said I was ready to take on bulk work. If I agreed I would make a little more money. But my cousin was worried: I would have to work seven days a week and stay up late, sometimes working right through the night, going without sleep for 48 hours. My cousin feared that the pressure of bulk work would be too great for a child of 13. She advised me to take a job in a bigger factory, where I might also have an opportunity for education on Sundays.

It was a medium-sized factory with 20 machines. From outside you could hardly tell it was a factory – the windows were high up and barred and we were not allowed to open them. It was very closed; no-one could see inside. There were 20 workers. Most of the others were between 15 and 17. We worked six days a week. It was a registered factory and so had to meet government regulations. However, the owners had no kindness. They were very stingy, too; the pay was very low and they never raised our salary. They didn’t care.

There were several organizations in Bangkok providing activities for working children but most operated during the day when I couldn’t attend. Then I heard of the Child Labour Club, whose activities are at the weekend. So I started attending non-formal education on Sundays. They also provide shelter and healthcare for children with problems. I’m 16 now and in January I quit my job to work for the Club part-time, reaching out to other working children. The Club pays me 3,000 baht (about $150) a month and they give me a room without rent which I share with two other girls.

Sawai was interviewed by Anthony Swift.

Contents page

Link to NI home page

Subscribe   Ethical Shop