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Just How Bad Is Child Labour?


By Diane Small

When I was 12, my parents were discussing whether I was old enough to spend summers working in my father’s office, doing data entry of basic stock for his chain of hardware stores. My mom said they should ask me what I’d prefer: working in the office with my dad, or taking on a part-time job as a neighbourhood dog walker. My father growled that he’d make the decision as I was ‘too young to know what was best for me.’ Mind-numbing data entry it was then, for three long months, over the course of the next four summers.

While an office job like that is often regarded as a ‘character building experience’ more than ‘child labour,’ there are indeed children in full time work around the world who are even younger than 12. Recently, President Evo Morales introduced a law in Bolivia that would allow children these children to work legally–even if they are as young as 10.

While the new Bolivian law has received much support locally (Morales was also just re-elected in a landslide win), it has led to sharp criticism from many international human rights groups who note that it goes against a United Nations convention, which sets the minimum age to work at 14.

But the Bolivian government and supporters of the legislation say that the law guarantees legal protections and fair wages for children, who have been working regardless of laws against it. Given the fact that many families in Bolivia are very poor, the Bolivian government argued that like prostitution, child labour is a complex issue that will not disappear by simply making it illegal–in fact, if children didn’t work in a family, often that family wouldn’t eat. And so until the wider issues are addressed, it may be better to ensure better working conditions for those in employment, and lift the threat of taking legal action against the families of working children. Yet the law remains contentious.

Child worker in Hainan, China. Image: Wikicommons

Child worker in Hainan, China. Image: Wikicommons

The Reality

A 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Labor reported that despite its illegality,  more than 20 percent of Bolivians between the ages of 7 and 14 are in work; however, a U.N. agency reported a figure nearly three times that high in 2008. Both reports note that Bolivian children work in some of the country’s most dangerous working conditions, such as mining. The new Bolivian law prohibits minors from working in such hazardous fields, where there is a real threat to human health and safety, and aims to put them into safer, gentler areas.

But it’s not just Bolivian kids who are working: in most developing countries, children area expected to do labour, be it on the family farm, in the family shop or down the local factory, making products. Cultures vary globally, and formal education is considered a low priority when compared to bringing in income for the family. In some countries where war and disease have taken the adults, with a lack of state welfare and other relatives to care for them, older siblings are often charged with working to pay for not only their own survival, but the survival of their younger brothers and sisters.

However, in the vast majority of discussions on the topic of child labour, the term is used as an indicator of depravity, as if the concept of any child working at all is inherently evil. In some cases, such as the child-miners enslaved in Burkino UNICEF state that “Child labour reinforces intergenerational cycles of poverty, undermines national economies and impedes achieving progress towards the Millennium Development Goals.”


Child bread seller in Jerusalem. Image: Wikicommons

Child labour does indeed contribute to all of these things, but rather than a cause of poverty and poor economic development, it is more likely a result of these–and these problems are difficult to solve. Almost twenty years ago, The New Internationalist Magazine reported on the International Labour Organisation‘s (ILO) plans to produce a new Convention on Hazardous Child Labour. To help prepare this agreement, a Conference on Child Labour was held in Amsterdam in February 1997. Attendees included government ministers, company heads, trade union leaders, NGOs and teenaged delegates from working children’s organisations form Central and South America, Asia and West Africa.

The aims of the conference were:

  • to decide which kinds of child labour are the worst;
  • to understand why children work in these jobs;
  • to look for ways to stop children from doing these jobs.

The adults put forth the arguments that child labour could be a terrible thing, and so there should be programmes in place to allow children to live ‘normal’ lives, and that all work for children under 15 should be illegal.

However, to the shock of almost all adults present, the kids strongly disagreed. They argued that the definition of a ‘normal’ childhood is highly subjective and culturally sensitive.  Everyone agreed that there must be a definite date for stopping the worst kinds of child labour, but many child delegates thought it was important to do more than that.

For example, many of the adult delegates thought that:

  • there should be programmes to help the children have ‘normal lives’;
  • all young children should go to school and have a good quality education;
  • families should earn more money;
  • all work for children under the age of fifteen should be banned.

One person who agreed with a complete ban on child labour was a delegate from an international garment workers’ organisation He said:

“Nearly all child labour is intolerable and nearly all is criminal.” If it is not banned, “future generations of working children will never forgive us.”


Child workers in Pakistan. Image: Flickr

Children’s Voices

However, the child delegates believed the adults who were most strongly against child labour were those whose livelihoods were threatened by the children taking their jobs. None of the children claimed to be working out of choice; all were there out of sheer necessity, yet felt their positions were constantly under threat by NGOs, governments and competing adult workers.

The children argued that trade union delegates, for example, aimed to protect the only jobs of adult workers, and were clearly threatened by child employment.  Therefore, it was not surprising to the young delegates that  trade unions want all child labour to be banned.

If we truly want to help child labourers, the young delegates said:

  • the most gruelling kinds of child labour should be stopped;
  • there should NOT be a ban on all work for children;
  • the real problem is that many people are very poor;
  • as long as families are very poor, children must be allowed to work;
  • while long term solutions to poverty were preferable, the immediate problem for working children is bad working conditions.

Lakshmi Basrur was the delegate from a working children’s organisation in India. She explained:

“It is no use to offer us quality education if you will not allow us to work. Our families cannot survive if we do not work. The day should come when children will not need to work. Until then, they should be able to have dignified work and good quality but appropriate education, as well as time for leisure.”

Lakshmi also said that before any kind of work was banned, it was important to ask the opinion of the children themselves. If you stop children from working in certain jobs – even very bad jobs – their only choice could be something worse, like crime or prostitution.

Indeed, it’s been well documented that after the thriving garment industry in Bangladesh was boycotted by several countries, ostensibly for using child labour, most of the children who were forced out of the factories where they worked sewing and embroidering were forced into the streets, begging, stealing or working as prostitutes.


A child worker in the USA, 1909. Image: Wikicommons

UNICEF concluded in a report called “What Works for Working Children” that for kids in the Bangladeshi garment industry, working in factories was “less hazardous, more financially lucrative, and with more prospects for advancement than almost all other forms of employment open to children.”

As for Western campaigns to stop child labour, UNICEF added that boycotts “run into the problem of not being able to distinguish between good and bad working situations for children,” and noted that such bans were often used not out of concern for child welfare, but as an excuse for protectionist import bans (as it turns out was indeed the case for the Bangladeshi boycott). In fact, in rural areas of most impoverished nations, many children work- on farms, as street vendors, rag & bone collectors, or garment workers. But when these activities aren’t incorporated into (or threaten) Western trade, we tend to turn a blind eye, or accept this as ‘normal’ within the cultural context.

The Bottom Line: What Working Children Want

All the child worker delegates spoke in support of the ten proposals for better lives for working children, which were previously agreed at the first international conference of working children in India in 1996, but were not officially implemented.

The fact that all of the child workers at the conference represented various organisations of working children made it clear that around the globe, child workers are aware and active, fighting not for the right to an education, as Westerners would demand, but for a better working life. In fact, Lakshmi’s movement is now represented in five village authorities in her part of India; and The National Movement of Organized Working Children in Peru has written its own curriculum for working children, which is being used in a government school; and the National Movement of Street Boys and Girls in Brazil is taking part in establishing the legal rights of working children in Brazil.

The issue is no doubt a complicated one, but it begs certain questions: to which extent should children’s voices be heard and considered? What constitutes ‘a normal childhood’? Maybe those who can best answer these questions are the children themselves–it seems from the eloquent way they’ve represented themselves at conferences around the globe, they’re not too young to know what’s good for them at all.

Main image: Child workers in Africa, via Flickr

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